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After four years of trying to get it off the ground, the Tech4Africa web and emerging technology conference is all systems go for mid-August in Johannesburg. However, it hasn’t been a project without criticism or naysayers.
Tech4Africa founder Gareth Knight explains rather candidly the need for the conference, its “no ties” policy, why they are looking to stir the pot, and why they’ve gone looking for speakers who aren’t necessarily on Twitter.
Why are we doing TECH4AFRICA?
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 (with regards to 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 the conference 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 this year’s conference, 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 can be done.
That said, the conference is not about technology for sustainable development, technology outsourcing or business process outsourcing, but it is about driving innovation on the web and mobile in Africa.
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.
Inspirational African speakers
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 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.
Ruffling feathers and great debate
Jason Fried asks “where’s 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.
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.
Inspiration and momentum for the doers
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 inaccessible 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 VCs 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.
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.
Modelling TECH4AFRICA on SxSW
I’ve had the good fortune to go to SxSW three 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. 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.
The doers versus the talkers
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. I can’t wait for August!
- Please note that I’m writing this in the spirit of the “naked CEO” theme 🙂