Stimulating Tech Innovation in South Africa

capetownThere are a whole host of organisations which are working hard to help build the tech ecosystem and support entrepreneurs in South Africa.  I was fortunate enough to visit some of them towards the end of last year.

UCT imageGary Marsden runs ICT4D courses at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and his students are starting to generate a wide range of tech for social change projects as far ranging as a job search platform, learning management tools, mHealth applications and an application testing water quality.

UCT is also setting up the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship in partnership with Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT).  Based at the Waterfront, they aim to support social entrepreneurs and exhibit innovation.  They’re working closely with Marlon Parker who will be providing Living Lab training to their members to support idea generation.

MerakaAt the opposite end of the country in Pretoria, the CSIR Meraka Institute carries out cutting edge research in the field of ICT4D.  I was able to meet with Merryl Ford who focuses on applying ICT use to health, education and other social sectors.  They’ve been conducting research on Dr Maths in the Eastern Cape which provides tutoring to learners via mobile in 4 languages and has 60, 000 users and are exploring other learning platforms like Quiz Max and Siyavula, which provides text books and tutorials via mobile which align to grade 10-12 Science and Maths curriculums in schools.

They are also conducting a pilot which aims to make digital content available on tablets in 26 schools in these regions.  Whilst this seems premature elsewhere in Africa, it seems that many people in the education sector in South Africa are encouraging this approach and it may be viable as government funding and commitment to education is high, infrastructure such as electricity is widely available and costs are lower than textbook distribution.

Tim Harries and Bandwidth Barn (1)There’s some enthusiasm in the public sector too.  I was able to meet with Tim Harris, the Shadow Minister of Finance and a member of the Democratic Alliance.  He’s keen to explore the ways in which technology can be used to boost the economy and reduce the gap between citizens and their representatives.

Silicon cape logoI also met Alex Fraser of the Silicon Cape Initiative.  She described how their organisation is strengthening the tech ecosystem in South Africa, initially focusing on the Western Cape.  They focus on skills development, attracting investors, establishing partnerships and creating an enabling environment for investors.

Alex believes that the current tech ecosystem is underdeveloped, with saturation level not met in most sectors.  There is a core of 100-200 passionate individuals working voluntarily and they have 7,000 members.  She believes that there are lots of opportunities for growth and South Africans are natural entrepreneurs.  She highlighted that South Africa is a great test ground for products as they cater to both low and high income markets, the cost of doing business is relatively cheap and people are used to bootstrapping.

Key challenges remain, including identifying good role models/success stories, increasing confidence (few view themselves as global players), encouraging people to value entrepreneurship as much as traditional careers and increasing the number of non-white men in the field.  I look forward to seeing how this space evolves.