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By Milo Ramela

Move over, tenderpreneurs – Johannesburg’s award-winning Kriterion system, developed by a team of bright young minds, aims to overhaul the tender process and root out corruption.

The group of third-year University of Johannesburg students, Kennedy Siguake, Rito Vukela, Vuyane Ngwenya and Nnaemeka Obodoekwe, have a developed a unique tender management system they call Kriterion. It’s designed to make the tender process more transparent by digitally capturing every step. The system is aimed at government, parastatals and contractors.

“Corruption in the tender process is a very big problem in South Africa right now,” Siguake, 21, told Corruption Watch. He’s completing a BSc in information technology and is in charge of Kriterion’s mobile services. He said the main problem is figuring out why certain people got certain projects when at times they do not comply with criteria. “We are trying to make the whole process transparent to all parties involved in the bidding process,” he said, adding that corruption stands in the way of the country’s growth and development and it was the right time to develop a system that could remedy the defects of the current system.

Concerned about the crippling effects of fraud and mismanagement in tendering, the students took on the challenge of designing a system that could make unbiased decisions on the awarding of tenders, using stringent criteria – hence the name Kriterion – ultimately removing corruption from the tender system.

“We wanted to solve an actual problem, rather than just creating something that looks good,” said 20-year-old Ngwenya who is studying electronics and information technology, and is the mastermind behind the system’s data and algorithm analysis.

He explained that the system aims to streamline tendering by handling every process, thus eliminating the human factor and allowing a computer to produce analytic unbiased results. The system will do this through algorithms that carry out each step within the tender process, and a point and rating system. Companies are assigned points for specific merits and the tender winner is the company with the most points – thus compliant with the given criteria and the most capable of providing the service.

Announcing Kriterion as the winner of this year’s University of Johannesburg Academy of Computer Science Software Engineering Projects Day. Microsoft’s Johan Klut said, “This project won because we all need it in this country and Africa at large, and this team went ahead to deliver a great solution to a problem currently being faced by the country.”

The team won a cash prize of R8 000 from Entelect Software and will also represent the university in the Microsoft Imagine Cup, a global student technology programme and competition, next year.

Conquering unknown territory

The Kriterion team (l to r) - Nnaemeka Obodoekwe, Vuyane Ngwenya, Rito Vukela and Kennedy Siguake.

The Kriterion team (l to r) – Nnaemeka Obodoekwe, Vuyane Ngwenya, Rito Vukela and Kennedy Siguake.

The group explained that Kriterion came about as a third-year project, and initially tendering was the furthest thing from their minds. Obodoekwe said the idea came while he was talking with one of their mentors. “A tender management system seemed like an interesting idea so we did some research on it.”

A passionate student, Obodoekwe is also studying for a BSc in information technology and is hoping to do his honours in the coming year. Described by his teammates as the business mind behind the idea, he’s in charge of the database schema designs, ensuring proper relationships between schemas, enforcing data integrity, and managing information provided by users.

While the team knew little about tender management, they realised as they did more research and spoke to people that such a system could solve a major problem in the country. After much reading and following the news, the group had an understanding of the tender environment and the extent of the problem.

“We were quite sceptical at first,” Obodoekwe said, “because none of us had placed bids for tenders before – we didn’t even know what a tender document looked like. We were flying blind; we didn’t know what we were going to face in this project.”

The current tender process involves reams of paperwork which companies have to complete, compile and submit. The Kriterion team wanted to make it more current and transparent. By taking the process online they would also minimise corruption.

“We found out that there is a standard bidding document. As IT people we immediately thought of how everything on this paper could be put into a system, so the paper would not go missing or be destroyed, and there would be a trail,” said Obodoekwe. He said their starting point for the system was moving from paper to an online space.

Turning the system around

KriterionThe system would work as follows; companies would visit the system’s website and register as a supplier for a particular field or industry, which would make them part of a central data system. By registering they would get information on tenders advertised by different companies and state departments.

During registration the company would submit important information such as tax clearance documents, company registration documents, BEE certificates, industry grading certificates etc. The site would then verify the potential suppliers’ documents and credentials using verification bodies such as TransUnion and the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission. This would ensure that registered companies are credible candidates with verified legitimate businesses and the necessary grading and experience for future contracts.

“When the company bids for a project they no longer need to submit all the documents as they would be on the system already, that makes it easier and more transparent,” said Vukela. The 21-year-old is also studying towards his BSc in information technology and as the web and graphics designer he ensures that the website’s content is easy to understand and accessible to interested parties.

Once a project has been set up and advertised, the system will send a targeted advertisement to those registered companies that meet the criteria for the tender and have been verified, Obodoekwe explained. “If company A is in the mining industry and meets the criteria, the system will send an email telling them about a new tender, and they can go view it.”

Cheaters beware

There are often compulsory tender briefings, and non-attendance excludes the company from bidding. The Kriterion team discovered a loophole here that allows for corruption. “If I have a connection in the government department I could decide not to go to the meeting and then call up my friend there and say I didn’t come to the meeting but just add my name to the registration list. So we decided to come up with something effective to curb this,” said Obodoekwe.

Along with the advertisement, potential contractors will also receive details for the briefing and a QR code that they will scan from their mobile devices upon arrival at the venue, as a way of signing in. The system will capture this as proof that someone from the company did in fact attend. The QR code would be active only while the meeting is in progress, so no one who wasn’t present could scan it afterwards.

Once bids have been submitted, three subject matter experts from the relevant industry will then analyse all the suppliers. These experts would be randomly selected by the system using an algorithm – they would not know each other nor would the company or government department know who has been chosen. The experts would individually submit findings and recommendations on their preferred candidate. Based on that, the system would score the company using a points system and recommend the supplier best suited to win the tender.

Final decision still in human hands

“The thing with our system is that we are not trying to force you to say this is what you have to do,” said Obodoekwe. “You are still allowed to make your decision, to choose a person not selected by the system. But if a review is needed to find out why a certain person was chosen, then the audit log will show everything from the start of the process, to any changes that were made, and all recommendations and documentation. It’s all available so you don’t need to conduct a big investigation to find that all out.”

Cost saving is another of Kriterion’s strengths. Less money would be spent on advertising and administration, and reduced corruption would result in big savings. “Reading newspapers and seeing statistics that say billions have been lost to tender corruption, to us that’s billions worth of national development that is disappearing and no one is accountable.” said Ngwenya. “That is when we thought we can actually build a system that can change that.”

Kriterion is currently being patented with the help of the university’s Innovation Centre. The team said they are also looking for opportunities to engage with major companies and the government in the hope of getting their buy-in to work with them and implement the system.