The true story of un­funded in­no­va­tors in SA |

Pretoria News - - BUSINESS REPORT - Wes­ley Diphoko is the Edi­tor-in-Chief of the Fast Com­pany mag­a­zine in South Africa. You can reach him via email: wes­ley@fast­com­pany.co.za or Twit­ter: @Wes­leyDiphoko

WHY IS it that most tech­nol­ogy prod­ucts we use to­day were de­vel­oped by peo­ple who come from the same com­mu­ni­ties?

There’s a rea­son why the Please Call Me saga hap­pened in South Africa. Alan Knott-Craig, Vo­da­com’s for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tive, never ex­pected some­one like Nkosana Makate to in­vent or create the Please Call Me ser­vice. In his mind he and peo­ple like him were the only ones ca­pa­ble of cre­at­ing and in­no­vat­ing. In this he was chal­lenged.

This is the think­ing that is re­spon­si­ble for the lack of tech from all mem­bers of so­ci­ety. There’s a need for a neu­tral plat­form to en­able all in­no­va­tors to have ac­cess to fund­ing.

Most tech plat­forms, hard­ware, soft­ware were de­vel­oped by peo­ple who look the same, speak the same lan­guage and be­long to the same so­cial cir­cles.

Is it pos­si­ble that there are no in­no­va­tors, cre­ators, in­ven­tors from other mem­bers of so­ci­ety? These are ques­tions that have been asked be­fore and inspired ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist like Ar­lan Hamil­ton to change the sta­tus quo in the ven­ture cap­i­tal space in the US.

They are ques­tions that have been asked by cre­ators like Tris­tan Walker and inspired him to create Bevel, shav­ing prod­ucts that help re­duce bumps and skin ir­ri­ta­tion for peo­ple that were ig­nored by the men’s grooming in­dus­try, which was later ac­quired by a ma­jor cor­po­rate. To this very day there has never been a clear an­swer to these ques­tions.

The re­al­ity is that hu­man be­ings from dif­fer­ent back­grounds can think, in­vent and create. The records of in­ven­tions and patents how­ever show a dif­fer­ent pic­ture. Anal­y­sis of this chal­lenge shows that part of what in­flu­ences this chal­lenge is the man­ner in which in­no­va­tion is funded.

In­sti­tu­tions and com­pa­nies that fund tech­nol­ogy start-up com­pa­nies are owned by the same kind of peo­ple who tend to only fund start-ups that are founded by peo­ple who look like them. The lack of di­ver­sity in tech is not an ac­ci­dent.

En­ter SA SME Fund, a fund that was cre­ated to sup­port en­trepreneur­s and help es­tab­lished small firms ex­pand. The fund was also de­signed to en­able en­trepreneur­s from pre­vi­ously dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties to ac­cess fund­ing.

As a fund of funds, the SA SME Fund does not in­vest di­rectly. In­stead, it chan­nels re­sources to es­tab­lished in­vest­ment com­pa­nies spe­cial­is­ing in ven­ture cap­i­tal, growth or im­pact in­vest­ing. That is where the at­tempt at cor­rect­ing this chal­lenge be­gins to miss the point.

Ven­ture Cap­i­tal firms in South Africa are all owned by the same group of peo­ple who also tend to fund tech­nol­ogy start-ups that are founded by peo­ple who look like them.

In ad­di­tion to this, the SA SME Fund has taken a com­mend­able step fur­ther in ad­dress­ing the fund­ing chal­lenge, par­tic­u­larly for univer­sity stu­dents in the tech­nol­ogy space.

The only chal­lenge is that it seems that the SA SME Fund is fol­low­ing the same model it fol­lows with ven­ture cap­i­tal firms. The univer­si­ties that are lead­ing the Univer­sity Tech­nol­ogy Fund are mainly in­sti­tu­tions that are his­tor­i­cally priv­i­leged with mainly stu­dents from priv­i­leged com­mu­ni­ties.

The chal­lenge with these ef­forts to change the sta­tus quo is that they are in them­selves main­tain­ing the cur­rent state of af­fairs. There’s lit­tle that is done to cor­rect the state of in­no­va­tion in South Africa.

Most ef­forts, whether by de­fault or de­sign, lead to in­no­va­tions that come from the same type of peo­ple.

If we are to make an im­pact in so­ci­ety, the South African in­no­va­tion com­mu­nity will have to em­brace and sup­port in­no­va­tion across so­ci­ety from all its peo­ple.

Cur­rently, South Africa is miss­ing out from in­no­va­tions that could come from some­one who grew up in a town­ship or ru­ral area. There’s a sig­nif­i­cant part of our so­ci­ety that is ig­nored due to ven­ture cap­i­tal bias, which tends to have less ap­pre­ci­a­tion for in­no­va­tions are de­vel­oped by peo­ple who don’t share their world-view.

WES­LEY DIPHOKO

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