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Columnists

S. Africa’s broken promises and tech resilience

Bitange Ndemo
  NATION MEDIA GROUP

I spent most of last week in Cape Town, South Africa, at the invitation of Google’s Africa Internet Academy. On the last day, we went on a field trip to Bandwidth Barn in Khayelitsha, one of the poorest suburbs of Cape Town.

It is where the former Apartheid regime used to dump black people, but unfortunately even today it isn’t any different. It is a desolate reminder of broken promises.

Cape Town is perhaps one of the cleanest cities in Africa, but the most unequal place in the continent. This is the verdict you come up with if you drive out of the city into Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, Langa, Mitchells Plain and Cape Flats.

Poverty in Khayelitsha is of the magnitude of Nairobi’s Kibra, or perhaps worse, but that has not dampened the spirit of the people.

Ms. Fezeka Mavuso, the business development manager at the Bandwidth Barn, is all smiles and hopeful. She tells us that the provincial government, through the Cape Innovation and Technology Initiative (CITI), sponsors the Centre.

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Other services like Internet provision are paid for by the Department of Trade and Industry. In return, the centre must focus its energies on incubating new startups.

However, according to Mavuso, there are fundamental policy interventions that are required to build an entrepreneurial culture.

In her presentation, she emphasised changing the high school curriculum to encourage students to learn Mathematics instead of Maths Literacy.

The latter was introduced during Apartheid specifically for blacks to understand the basics of Math, but equips school leavers with clear disadvantages as they cannot cope with the training that industry wants.

She also wanted a more structured digital literacy programme instead of donor-driven training, which is not sustainable.

Mavuso strongly felt that the government must shift its focus towards Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). This is where she sees jobs and has the data to back up her claim.

The code school that provides training within the centre has just graduated 39 programmers.

Within a few months, 38 have been absorbed in different companies while the remaining one started his own business.

Technology is imperative, she said. Business registration, tax returns or even government tenders in South Africa are all done online. Without digital skills, many of Khayelitsha residents will go nowhere.

Despite the difficulties, the centre has managed to take several enterprises from idea stage through to a three-year incubation period.

The kind of enterprises being incubated at Bandwidth Barn cut across all industries including the creative economy sector, manufacturing as well as software.

Bandwidth Barn partners with the University of Stellenbosch to teach specific subjects that would enhance entrepreneurialism. Besides providing shared services, the centre also helps to develop supply chains for products developed at the centre.

Some of the successful enterprises can continue with the CITI programme at Woodstock, a more advanced co-working space with better collaboration with other successful enterprises and where they can access venture funds to grow their enterprises.

Our team later visited a privately run co-working innovation hub, Workshop 17, started by Silicon Cape Initiative (SCI) and based at the Waterfront in Cape Town.

This 2,000 square metre facility has about 300 entrepreneurs registered as members with 80 start-ups.

The presenters at this working space told us that it is ideal for young innovators who feel constrained working in a formal office.

They collaborate and share services like legal, office and bandwidth before they are ready to set up in their own offices. The largest start-up has 20 employees.

Like in many other innovation hubs in Africa, South Africa is also struggling to get more women into tech innovations.

Income disparity perhaps explains why there are fewer black enterprises at Workshop 17, which is fast growing and demanding more space.

Just like at Bandwidth Barn, there is a code school that specifically equips young people with skills that the industry wants. Many of those who graduate from the code school find jobs within a very short period.

The successes of code schools in South Africa is consistent with what is happening in Nairobi. Students who have gone through Muringa School, Andela and Tunapanda often get jobs in industry.

Unfortunately, policy makers in South Africa and Kenya fail to recognise such initiatives that facilitate reduction in unemployment. In spite of broken promises, tech resilience in South Africa is promising hope.

Policy makers need to support initiatives that reduce unemployment. There is need to expand co-working innovation spaces to encourage entrepreneurship.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.

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