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!

Tech4Africa conference launches with world-class speaker line-up

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A stellar line-up of international speakers will be joining leading African technologists to present at the inaugural Tech4Africa Conference in August this year. The conference gives South African businesses a rare opportunity to learn first hand from local and international speakers about the role that emerging and Web technologies have to play in African business and development.

The event, organised by Technovated, will bring international experience and perspective to the African continent and at the same time expose what Africans are doing with the Web, mobile and other emerging technologies. Tech4Africa is the premier conference and workshop for anyone who wants to understand where technology in Africa is moving.

One of the world’s top thinkers in the Internet space will be giving the keynote speech at the event. Further details will be released shortly. Other confirmed speakers for the event so far include the following:

·       Dustin Diaz, a user interface engineer at Twitter and author of JavaScript Design Patterns.
·       Joe Stump, the former lead architect of digg in San Francisco and co-founder of SimpleGeo
·       Matthew Mullenweg, the founding developer of WordPress, the blogging software that runs millions of Web sites around the world.
·       John Resig, creator of the popular javascript library jQuery, a JavaScript tool developer for the Mozilla Corporation, and the author of the book Pro JavaScript Techniques
·       Alex Hunter, former Head of Online Marketing for the Virgin Group, and now an independent digital ninja, brand consultant, company adviser, and micro-venture capital investor
·       Jonathan Snook, a veteran Canadian web designer and developer, currently working for Yahoo!
·       Andy Budd, an internationally renowned interaction and usability expert
·       Steve Vosloo, the 21st Century Learning Fellow for the Shuttleworth Foundation
·       Barbara Mallinson, founder of Obami, a web-based communication and collaboration platform for use within, and between schools
·       Agosta Liko, founder of PesaPal, a mobile payments company in Nairobi, Kenya
·       Erik Hersman, the co-founder of Ushahidi, a web application created to map the reported incidents of violence happening during the post-election crisis in Kenya

The conference runs from 12-13 August 2010 at The Forum in Bryanston and pre-event workshops will be held on 10-11 August 2010. The event is targeted at business professionals and technologists from across Africa, from entrepreneurs and start-up owners through to professionals working at large organisations.

Attendees will gain practical, first-hand knowledge about the funding landscape in Africa; what cloud computing, Web 2.0, the mobile Internet and other emerging technologies mean for their businesses and societies; how the most successful African technology and Web businesses are leveraging technology to succeed; which new Web and technology-related business opportunities are emerging in Africa and the rest of the world; and how the Web can help African societies to succeed.

Says Gareth Knight, MD of Technovated: “This is the first conference in South Africa to bring together so many international and local speakers of such high calibre. It is an excellent learning opportunity for any person or organisation with an interest in the African Web – whether as an end-user of the technology, as a technologist working with the technology, or as an entrepreneur or investor active in the African market. An event of this nature has previously only been available to those who could afford to travel to international conferences.”

Registration for the event is open and there are 300 early bird tickets available.

For further information or to register, visit http://tech4africa.com, email [email protected] or call +44 (0) 207 788 1023.

About Technovated

Technovated is a leading Web 2.0 provider in South Africa and London. Technovated enables content management, delivers e-commerce stores and search engine marketing, provides social media management and stimulates growth for foreign markets through authentic user engagement.

Press Contacts

Ian Rodney
Account Manager
Emerging Media Communications +27 (011) 792 4706
[email protected]

Gareth Knight
Managing Director
Technovated
[email protected]

Reflections on South Africa, 7 years on

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I’ve just had the privilege of spending some time in South Africa, my longest trip there in 7 years, and I must say it’s been a totally different experience than I had anticipated.

I’ve come away much, much, much more interested in SA than I thought I would; more proud of my family, friends and people in general; more homesick of the land that I grew up in; and more convinced that it has a great responsibility to offer something unique to the world.

So what follows are my thoughts, primarily so that I can get them down in my own head in some sort of reasonable, thoughtful fashion; and of course so that others may benefit in some way.

Cape Town:
Amazing place, fills you with energy and a sort of peaceful quiet. Didn’t get to experience a proper CT winter, so mine were rose tinted goggles, but hey I’m allowed to fantasize. Very different vibe to Jhb though.

Johannesburg:
I can’t believe the growth that has gone on in Jozi. When I left, Jozi was pretty much up to the concrete highway and a little more in places. Now, it extends far beyond that, with construction everywhere. Office space is everywhere you look (which means there are lots of salespeople looking to fill space = deals to be had), and is relatively much cheaper than in Londres. Sandton seems to be the hub now, with central Jozi relegated to a no-go zone for most people. When the Gautrain is done, think it will have a huge impact on the central Gauteng area (Pretoria, Midrand, Jhb).

The bush:
I fell in love with the bush all over again, can’t wait to go back.  The smell of the veldt, the sounds of it, can’t really describe how it affected me, other than to say the sense of peace and quiet I felt was not something I’ve felt in London / Europe or much anywhere for that matter.  Why are we destroying our natural world?

Living there:
Everyone drives everywhere they go – definitely no walking culture for people with cars (at least in Jozi – maybe CT more so) – primarily because there isn’t a formal public transport system, and also because of the distances involved. In one day travelling to 3 meetings I did about 150km without thinking.

Shops in general aren’t open late, so there’s no such thing as nipping to the Spar or the booze shop at 8:30 for some quick chow and a couple drinks for the mates braai.

Costs
It’s really weird – some things are super, super cheap using the pound; but others are so expensive you can’t justify the expense even paying with pounds. Bread, milk, and other staples fall into the cheap category for obvious reasons, along with meat and veggies. Something like salmon is expensive, digital stuff is relatively more expensive, and photographic equipment 2x to 3x the price on Amazon in the UK.

Pound for Rand however, I think you’re still going to be able to buy more for your money in the UK – supply and demand economics would probably bear me out on this, although one day I’m going to do a sample shopping list in London and Jozi and see what happens. If you go to a bar or restaurant however, you’re going to get more for your money in SA, and generally you’re going to eat better food, which is kinda counterintuitive. That said, I didn’t go to the Gordon Ramsay spot at the new One & Only hotel in CT, so can’t comment on Gordon Bleu food ;-)

Internal flights are much more affordable than they used to be, but if you compare distance and costs with European carriers, I think that similiar EU options are going to be much cheaper = same supply and demand argument here. That said, factoring in flights for internal travel for business seems to be affordable.

The property rental market is cheaper than in the UK (people interested in property would already know this) so for the rent you would pay in the UK, you can get a relatively better and bigger place in SA.

One of the things I really, really didn’t enjoy, was the constant begging. At every street corner you’re confronted with that sinking feeling that you can’t keep doling out cash every time someone asks for it – probably 10 to 20 times a day – even though you want to, which made me feel uncomfortable. I started out givng R5 to “parking professionals” every time I parked the car I was using, and got a swift kick in the rear, to say that I was raising the prices for everyone else locally. Still, R10 to R20 a day is a lot to give away when you do it every day out of guilt.

Bank charges are prohibitive – it seems the SA banks have a nice little big business going there – everyone is aware of it, and “how to reduce bank charges” is a topic that came up a lot.

Bandwidth:
I paid R250 (£20 odd) for 500MB of hotspot bandwidth valid for a year, to use at participating hotspots. Not sure what you pay for something similiar in London, not used that for years now.

We went with WebAfrica ADSL based on a recommendation from a friend, and have to say the service was great, but the bandwidth not that great – approx R250 for 320k/s capped at 1GB is gold rush stuff, so can only hope that is going to drop with the new cable coming in.  In comparison, I pay £21 per month, for 25GB of bandwidth at 8MB/s (which is about 800k/s in real life). Sucks huh?  Good lesson in supply and demand though ;-)

The people
I’ll never forget the man that offered to pay for my parking when I said that I had to go and draw cash from a foreign account (first day, so no cash). His rationale was that the charges alone would be more than the cost of the parking. I didn’t take him up on it, and did swallow when I paid. Nice man though ;-)

There seems to be a general feeling of hope and optimism in the air, mainly around the different sporting events happening in the next two years (IPL, Lions Tour, Confederations Cup, World Cup – missing any?), as well as the recent democratic elections which went pretty smoothly. I found the people I interacted with friendly, helpful, smiling, and willing to go the extra mile.

I got sick and tired of Highveld Stereo after about a week of listening to it, so started tuning into 702, 5FM, RSG and Radio 2000 – and found that between them I was able to stay informed and not hear the same jokes, same jibes and same songs every day. Sad to see Jeremy Mansfield and his crew still doing the same stuff 7 years later, but I guess if it aint broke, don’t fix it….  Ummm, no.

The politics:
I’m no politician, and prefer to focus on results whatever the politics, but my overwhelming impression is that the country is expecting service delivery from the ANC, and JZ (Mr Zuma to the uninitiated) is tasked with overseeing that delivery. He’s got some great people in to help him so things are looking good, but we’ll see. I was gobsmacked by how much emphasis there is on government, and how much red tape (I could be wrong here but that was what I saw and heard) there is for private enterprise to jump through. I’m not gonna say much more here – until I educate myself more.

The Web scene:
I spent a lot of time meeting with people, getting a feel for what’s going on and how big the market is, and it seems to me that there is a pretty small layer of folks who are vocal (read: tweeting) and who are talking (again, read: tweeting and blogging) about stuff (maybe 50 to 100), and then another layer of folks who aren’t into the vocal social web (so I can’t comment on them). People seem to be working for themselves, in small agencies, or in much larger institutions (think banks, insurance companies etc) with relatively few in what I would call mid-size businesses, or startups. Apparently there is more (service / client) work around than there are good people to do it, which is refreshing – means there is a demand and I imagine there are a lot of folks trying to fill that demand.

All in all however, the internet market in Southern Africa (broadened intentionally) is very small, which leads me to a question I’ve been asking for a long time – if the local market is small, but there are people with skillz, why is there this persistent focus on building things for the local market? Why not build something for the global market?

As I see it, the primary constraints are amount of bandwidth, and the corresponding cost of said bandwidth – which is crippling to say the least… but that kind of pressure brings focus and ingenuity, which is what every good startupp needs more than anything else.

Which brings me neatly to my next point: Everyone is talking about the Seacom cable which is supposed to be opening up the bandwidth sluice gates come June / July. Assuming that de-regulation goes ahead, and there are no monopolies, I’m hopeful (along with everyone else) that things will change. Demand will create competition which will bring prices down, which should create more demand. Dark Fibre Africa are laying fibre optic cables in Jozi, CT and Durbs, which is great – awesome to see such progress. If this is the yellow brick road, I hope it leads to Kansas! In the meantime, everyone seems to be using 3G cards, and wireless is nowhere to be seen. Anyone spot an opportunity? ;-)

Business:
The smart money is on the massive growth of the middle market in the coming years. Some people say 3 yrs, others 5. Bottom line is there is a whole layer of people entering the middle market with disposable income to spend. The corresponding side effect of this is that there should be growth of the products and services this new market will demand, of which web based stuff will be one of them.

I’ve arrived back in London feeling that there are opportunities everywhere in SA for people with passion, focus, drive and integrity – who will provide a better product or service, or who spot the growth opportunities an emerging market economy creates. One of the key problems for this will be finding good people, as it seems that the good ones are already gainfully employed ‘cos they’re like hens teeth when you do the math (total population – working population – people in your sector – people with enough experience = a few good, ahem, men, to coin a phrase); but one of the corrolaries to this is that people at the lower end of the skills ladder or just out of the education system are going to be a lot cheaper than in most mature economies, and that those people (not yet dulled into socialist working practices) are going to be hungry for work and the opportunity to better themselves.

That said, most people I spoke to said the same thing consistently about entreprenuers and funders (angels, seed investors, VC’s), and that’s that there is a huge gap / mismatch / chasm between people looking to start ventures, and people looking to create wealth by funding ventures more risky than property or the markets. The starters say there are not enough funders, whilst the funders say there are not enough good starters…  I heard of at least 3 VC funds apparently not doing much locally – why is that?

Some people I spoke to mentioned that there is a stigma of failure in South Africa, holding people back from starting things, which I find interesting.  Coming from an entrepreneurial family, I’ve been around the smell of success and failure a lot (only realising how much of a differentiator it is now) so I’m not sure I can identify with that enough to comment.  Anyone got any perspective on this?  My humble estimation is that the internal fear of jumping off the ledge and starting is being confused with a cultural fear.  May be wrong tho….

Would love to hear your thoughts…..

Update:
This post has been added to the HomecomingRevolution site.

Change has come to the White House

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Check it out if you haven’t already:
_ http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/change_has_come_to_whitehouse-gov/

Really like what they are doing on the site, think it sets the tone and raises the bar of online efforts for pretty much everyone trying to engage… awesome work.

As for today, I certainly feel different about America, so I can’t imagine how Americans are feeling.
The world waits….

It’s not about being the most frugal

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Henrik comments on my Building a Startup You Love (is Hard) pdf / ebook
_ Henrik Torstensson’s Weblog: It is not about being the most frugal

Indeed, frugality is a great trait to have, in my humble opinion, when building a startup. You go and buy fruit and nuts instead of getting food delivered from the Ritz, you use online services with a cheap monthly subscription instead of buying in hardware / software, you start with interns and grow them into superstars instead of hiring FTE MBA grads… there are many examples.

However, I think being sustainable is more important. If frugality is living beneath your means, then sustainability is the bar you set to decide what your means are…. Does that make sense?

Would we be seeing the proliferation of services / apps everywhere, if they all had to make cash from Day 1? Probably not.

We’d be the poorer for it, and have less gimmicks to play with during lunch, but I also think we’d get better quality, and more attention to what is actually useful, as ultimately that is what people will pay for. Anyways, that’s another rant.

Henrik – thanks for the plug ;-)