Last week I was fortunate enough to attend the “Netpreneurs: The Rise of Africa’s Digital Lions” event (AKA ‘The Jack Ma thing’) at Wits University. I put together a couple of thoughts on the event and would love your feedback.
Getting the negatives out of the way:
Call me a spoilsport but if you are going to host an event with a big international investor talking digital innovation and investment then A) start on time – not 30 minutes late B) Get your ticketing system working C) make sure there is some internet connectivity (more on this below). These are basics when it comes to being competitive in the global economy and we need to get them right if we want to set the right tone – lot’s of other countries are competing for this investment money and it’s quite telling that Alibaba founder picked Kenya’s Nailab to run the $10m Netpreneur competition.
Maybe it’s anecdotal but it was interesting to see that the Alibaba management were there from start to finish (as far as I could see) but our “celebrities” / political leadership were mainly focused on the main event. Call me a stickler but it feels like our leadership wants to be seen in the “right” places but not putting in the hard yards behind the scenes?
A good win for Wits
The selection of Wits University to host the event was critical from two perspectives:
1. It shows that public, private partnerships can work and reminds people that we do have centres of excellence in our universities
2. It gave the student population the opportunity to see a world-class business leader in action. The venue was full to capacity showing the hunger for knowledge.
Jack Ma is an obvious role model and the fact that he doesn’t represent “Western” interests is important as the global economy becomes more reliant on the East. The fact that we got him to South Africa was fantastic. However for me, the one thing I found really interesting was the interest in Bogolo Kenewendo who is the 31 year old minister of Trade & Industry from Botswana. We have a young population and one of the regular criticisms around our political leadership is that we look to 70 year old Rob Davies to help drive us into the “4th industrial revolution”. That’s not to say that experience should be dismissed but younger political leadership would be refreshing.
Live streaming mustn’t be neglected:
Having previously put together events involving live streaming, I have often been cynical about the reach and value of it for event coordinators. I take that back – the live-streaming is such an important opportunity to share information and anecdotally, the fact that there were over 200 people at any point watching the supporting panels, highlights the value of this as a service.
Rhetoric doesn’t cut it if you don’t have a plan:
While Jack Ma was one of the stars of the show, I thought that Dr. Miriam Altman was one of the most under-rated speakers on the day for one critical reason: She wanted to zero into specifics not rhetoric. It’s easy to say “Government / private sector must invest more” , “We need free education / WiFi / infrastructure” , “We must put people before profits” or “Venture capitalists must take on more risk” or “Africa is the next frontier!” and all the other populist sayings that get the room cheering / “roaring” but … we seem to come up very light on specifics. The “who / what / when / where / how” seems to get glossed over.
A good example of this was when Altman made the point that while fellow panellists were talking about e-commerce and the economic opportunities it presented for intra-African trade… there was not much focus on how you could actually implement this in the practical sense in respect of cross border trade agreements and tariffs.
The point was made that 6 out 10 of the fastest growing economies last year were out of Africa (South Africa wasn’t one of them obviously) so it does highlight that while we are in a slump locally, the global economy continues to tick along and we should be more outwardly focused. Interestingly when I tweeted that statistic, there were one or two barbs on social media from South Africans who didn’t seem to think that economic growth was important for job creation / entrepreneurship in SA.
I think the Efounders initiative is an excellent way to put African innovation front and centre.
South Africans live in a bubble and quite bluntly, we are getting left behind in terms of the knowledge economy. In a lot of ways we have become complacent and point to our political leadership as reasons for not keeping up with innovation and global trends… this is partially true but if other African countries can beat us to major foreign investment in the technology space, then we need to look at ourselves on an individual and business level and make an active decision to start viewing ourselves as part of the global marketplace and not just inward focus.