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. Photo: Supplied
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. Photo: Supplied

The Infonomist: A story of unfunded innovators in SA … why Please Call Me saga happened

By Wesley Diphoko Time of article published Feb 7, 2020

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CAPE TOWN – 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.

Alan Knott-Craig, Vodacom’s former chief executive, never expected someone like Nkosana Makate to invent or create the Please Call Me service. Photo: Leon Nicholas/African News Agency (ANA)
Alan Knott-Craig, Vodacom’s former chief executive, never expected someone like Nkosana Makate to invent or create the Please Call Me service. Photo: Leon Nicholas/African News Agency (ANA)

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 is the Editor-in-Chief of the Fast Company magazine in South Africa. You can reach him via email: [email protected] or Twitter: @WesleyDiphoko

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