From Africa to the world, with love

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African technology to compete on a global stage

The landing of a series of undersea cables is going to solve an infrastructural problem that has long plagued Africa and will enable African technology developers to compete on a global stage. In order to properly realise the full potential of a global customer base, African technologists need to not only expose their work to the world, but to also expose themselves to the learnings and insights that the developed world has to offer.
- Written for TECH4AFRICA

New international submarine communication cables are starting to ring the continent, bringing with them the promise of cheaper broadband across the continent. That means Africa will soon have the infrastructure to be able to compete more effectively in the online space than it did in the past. But Africa has missed out on several years of important learning in this space. Now is the perfect time for African entrepreneurs to embrace business and technical expertise from the rest of the world and close that gap.

An all-too common and incorrect perception in South Africa and other parts of the continent is that African problems are different to those experienced anywhere else in the world, and that they should be addressed with uniquely African solutions. According to this view of the world, international best practices and experiences, especially those from developed countries, are not really applicable to African businesses. That is a misguided and parochial perspective in a world where technology and global trade have shrunk the world to a fraction of its former size.

In high-tech industries, such as Web-focused businesses, there is much that African entrepreneurs, public servants and technicians can learn from international experience. In fact, it’s imperative that African businesses embrace international experience and knowledge if they’re to catch up with what their peers are doing online in the rest of the world.

African challenges

Of course, Africa has infrastructure, political and social challenges that are not present in most parts of the world. Building an online business in an environment where the electricity supply is unreliable and where international bandwidth is slow and expensive is fraught with challenges that don’t exist for an entrepreneur building a business in the heart of Silicon Valley.

But in addition to their superb infrastructure, innovation hubs like the west and east coasts of the USA also offer an unrivaled depth of human capital. Whatever an entrepreneur’s business idea is, there are people around who have the experience and skills to help make it a reality. And of course, the more that experienced people share their skills and knowledge with each other, the more new ideas and concepts they come up with and the more successful they are turning their innovations into commercial products.

By contrast, an African entrepreneur trying to productise a nifty new mobile application or a new online service simply doesn’t have access to many local people who have the skills and experience. There is an abundance of great ideas and enthusiasm but a lack of experience in turning these ideas into commercial products.

There have been a few success stories – innovators such as Mark Shuttleworth, Elon Musk and Vinny Lingham come to mind – but they are exceptions to the rule and their skills are often lost to Africa when their businesses take off. An additional problem that becomes obvious from the above list, is that South Africans dominate the list of obvious success stories while technologists from the rest of Africa do not feature as highly.

Universal lessons

Most of the processes, technology and tools that African entrepreneurs will be using to create Web and mobile products and services will be similar to those used by people in other parts of the world. There are many universal lessons around project management, usability, product development, technology and many other areas that apply anywhere in the world, and they’re ones many American and European pioneers had to learn the hard way. Speccing and configuring a server, designing a good user interface, managing cashflow – these are all things that work the same way anywhere in the world.

So why not learn from international experience? The alternative is to stubbornly waste time and money reinventing the wheel and making the mistakes that others have already made. And that is something that no African entrepreneur can afford to do.

TECH4AFRICA

The TECH4AFRICA conference being held in August this year, aims to address the above issues by bringing a number of world famous technologists and African innovators to South Africa to share, teach and interact with Africans looking to make it in the technology space. It’s an exciting time for African technology and the opportunity that Tech4Africa presents is one that really shouldn’t be missed.

Naked CEO: Where we are with Tech4Africa

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Please note that I’m writing this in the spirit of the “naked CEO” theme ;-)

About 8 weeks ago I sat down to write a blog post entitled “Why do Tech4Africa?”, primarily dealing with the negative sentiment around the lack of “diversity” in the speakers and my frustrations with what I consider a limiting and naïve point of view. After re-reading it a few times, I decided not to post it, even after 4 hours of writing until 2am on a Sunday morning.

Since then, I’ve been overwhelmed both how much positive feedback there has been, by how positive our partner discussions have been, how willing people have been to help, and by how great the team is that we’ve assembled to make it all happen. Writing something that was in response to a small part of the overall discussion felt lame and defensive, so I didn’t.

So this blog post is about why, where we are, and where we’re going.

So, why are we doing TECH4AFRICA?

A lot of people have asked why do TECH4AFRICA, so here it is:
Africans are natural innovators and entrepreneurs, and I think that gradually the conditions are aligning to create an environment where a combination of access to cheap bandwidth on cheaper hardware, and readily available commodity infrastructure, is going to spark the innovation that will create products for large local and global markets.

My thinking is that Africans can compete by being innovative and creating products that are either global in scale, or that solve problems for large local markets (note that I said a “large local market”, not just “local market”).

So after 4 years of trying to get it off the ground, where the reasons have changed depending on where I was as a person, I think it boils down to anger and pride.

Anger at how far Africa is behind the US and Europe (wrt technology of course, I’m not commenting on anything else) in a 200+ million people market full of frontier opportunity, and why the tipping point seems so far away.

Pride because I can see the potential in the people I speak to, the products I’ve looked at, the interns I’ve hired and the honest intent I’ve witnessed.

So, we want TECH4AFRICA to help precipitate that innovation, give people the global perspective, awareness, skills and knowledge needed to execute their ideas, and the connections to make things happen. We want to light a spark, to let the world know that Africans can build great products.

I would derive great personal satisfaction from knowing that two engineers, a UX person and an angel met at TECH4AFRICA in 2010, and they went on to build the next 37Signals, Amazon, CraigsList, DropBox, eBay, FreshBooks, Gumtree, Jobserve, MailChimp, Mimecast, Moo, MyDeco, MyHeritage, PayPal, Salesforce.com, Skype, SongKick, Thawte, Twitter, Wonga, WordPress or any of the current Top 10 iPhone and Android apps.

The jury is still out on a lot of current local innovation, but we’re hopeful that in the future they will be shining lights of what we can be done.
That said, the conference is not about technology for sustainable development, technology outsourcing or BPO, but it is about driving innovation on the web and mobile in Africa.

We’re bringing out international speakers so that delegates can learn from the best in the business

The hardest part of doing a conference like this for the first time is that you have to “ham and egg it”. As well as dealing with cashflow limitations until there is enough partner participation to make cashflow less of a problem, you have to get great speakers lined up so that delegates and partners take you seriously. I’m happy to say we’ve done that.

I’m extremely proud of the speakers we’ve got coming to Africa (many for the first time), because they are amongst the best in the world at what they do.
I’m really confident that anyone attending TECH4AFRICA is going to walk away better off, simply because we don’t get access to these kinds of people, thinking and experience in Africa. So I would encourage anyone attending to be like a sponge, and soak up as much as possible.

Take a peek at our international speakers.

We’ve got great local speakers too

The above notwithstanding, we’ve also got great African speakers that really do give inspiration for where technology in Africa is going.
It’s been incredibly tough finding good people who understand what we’re trying to do, as well as finding speakers who have demonstrable real world experience and success behind them. I think that we’ve struck a good balance and that our speaker lineup reflects that.
Bottom line is that for the first time in Africa, we’ve got around 70 speakers talking about cloud, infrastructure, mobile, web 2.0, social media, search, funding and startups, so there is going to be a lot of great content for delegates.

Take a peek at our local speakers.

We’re actively going after the outrage

Jason Fried asks “where is the outrage”, and I agree with him mostly, so in this regard we’re actively trying to stir the pot a little, to ruffle some feathers and get some real conversation going.

I’m a firm believer in great debate, so the conference is an attempt to bring global perspective to a small market (active users, revenue; not people) which I think for the most part lives in an arrogantly myopic bubble, lacking the fundamental skills and experience necessary to build great products. And that’s aside from government and large institutions that seem blissfully unawares of how far behind they are falling.

For me, that perspective is found with people who have real global experience and thinking, and also from people that aren’t necessarily blogging and tweeting about it, but are actually doing it.

So we’re trying to get to the bottom of some important issues, not pat everyone on the back and say “well done”, where we’re still left in the same boat we were in yesterday. We want to shake up the status quo, ask the tough questions, shine lights to show the way, and join the dots for people.

We’re stepping away from the circle jerk

I’ve had many people mention the familiar (South) African circle jerk of the same speakers at every tech conference, so we’re actively trying to avoid that and find speakers who are able to get to the real brass tacks of the issues we face at the bottom end of a dark continent, without pulling punches.

Again, often the people that are doing stuff worth talking about are not on Twitter and are not blogging, so we don’t know about them on the social web, but they are around and we’re doing our best to find them so delegates can learn from them.

We want our audience to derive real value from the event, so the combination of great speakers, going after the outrage, and stepping away from the circle jerk should go a long way to create that value.

Take a peek at our schedule.

We’re creating inspiration and momentum for the doers

A week or two ago we announced that SeedCamp will be at Tech4Africa this year.

The reason I’m so happy about this is that there is a very clear disconnect in the venture funding lifecycle in Africa. It should be something like: start -> friends & family -> seed -> angel -> Series A VC -> Series B etc VC; but there seems to be a disconnect at the seed / angel / Series A VC phases. At the same time, the costs involved in taking products to the global market are almost inaccessbile for bootstrappers or organic growth, and the local market is not big enough to use cashflow from that to go overseas and be aggressive. The result of which is that it’s much, much harder to be inspired, create momentum, build and bootstrap a product to a point where VC’s can step in and help scale.

SeedCamp addresses this issue, has done so successfully in Europe, and I’m hoping will be a step in the right direction for innovators in Africa.

Find out more about SeedCamp.

We’re creating opportunities for people that should be there

This week we announced that through Old Mutual, we’re able to offer 17 seats to people that could otherwise not afford to go, which is fantastic.
Of course, we’d love to make the conference free for everyone but that’s not realistic, so this kind of opportunity really does level the playing field somewhat.
I’m hoping that next year we can add another 13 spots, and get formal mentorships going for all 30 folks.

Find out more about the Old Mutual Scholarships.

We’re modelling TECH4AFRICA on SxSW

I’ve had the good fortune to go to SxSW 3 times since 2006. I can categorically say that it really did change things for me at that stage of my life, and I can point directly to lifechanging events and thinking that was precipitated by SxSW.

I’ve been to a lot of conferences in the last 10 years, and the ones that I’ve enjoyed the most are Future of Web Apps (FOWA), and SxSW. They were enjoyable because they were relaxed, informal, the speakers were accessible (I can remember having a great discussion with Evan Williams about start-ups, when he still had a ponytail and was doing Odeo), had great content, and I met great people. The best conversations were in the hall, and at the parties.

The conferences I didn’t enjoy either had too many exhibitors, too little content, too many suits and ties, the speakers were aloof and there were not enough opportunities to meet people.

So that’s why we’ve chosen the format we have for TECH4AFRICA. We’re implementing a “no ties” policy. We’re encouraging speakers to mix and interact with delegates. We’re creating spaces where people can meet each other to talk about stuff. We’re making sure there is 15 mins at the end of a talk / panel, for delegates to ask the questions relevant to them.

Next year we’ll open up a panel picker for people to offer their own topics which other folks can vote on, and we’ll look at adding another day if it makes sense.
I’ve grown up a little more

I’m as frustrated as the next person by the lack of “diversity” candidates when looking for speakers that can sit down with globally recognised individuals and talk turkey with them (people who “have already done”, not “busy launching” or “talking on twitter”).

But I’m also fundamentally against the idea of adding people to the lineup that are simply not at the same level for whatever reason. Can you imagine what it would feel like to sit down and talk with speakers who really have cut the mustard, and realise that you’ve got absolutely nothing to add to the conversation when the microphone is passed to you?

As an inherently positive person who generally sees the good in things before the bad, I was quite taken aback at how critical or arrogant some people were with little or no real background information to inform their criticism or comments, about the above, and other issues.

But right now I’m not letting it bother me – we’re doing our level best to address all obvious concerns one might encounter when setting up a tech conference in Africa – and that’s going to have to be enough.

We’ve put together a great team to make it all happen

We’re on top of the enormity of a conference this size, with so many speakers (circa 65) and minute logistical details to attend to, and it’s only through the team that we have involved that it’s all coming together quite nicely.

Added to that, the partners that have come on board (which will be announced over the coming weeks) really have displayed a commitment to an African renaissance built on the knowledge economy, and after almost 9 years in London waiting for things to align, it’s exciting.

Thank you Bakhona, Brett, Brondie, Craig, Chrissy, Dorothy, Eve, Gerritt, Gugu, Ian, Justin, Neli, Nicolas, Sphamandla, Stephen, Tania and Thando, it really wouldn’t happen without you all ;-)

I can’t wait for August 10th!