SA townships were not designed to become engines of economic development. Nothing much was expected from them. They were built to be spaces for people to dwell while working in the cities. Most of them currently are faced with major challenges in society.
In view of these challenges the South African government keeps trying to develop solutions that are designed to make a difference in these environments and most are failing.
This time around through the Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA), the government has issued a call for technology incubators and digital hubs to be built in townships. This approach is modelled after a Chinese government model that used tech incubators as a catalyst for change.
Sadly in South Africa, some will see this call as an opportunity to take advantage of the situation in townships to develop incubators that have an appearance of solving local challenges but masking selfish interests.This call by SEDA is an opportunity for the South African tech community to work together with local communities in developing solutions that can truly make a difference. Here’s how this can be done.
Firstly, this should not only be seen as an opportunity to just build a building to offer an office for tech startups. This is an opportunity to build a technology operating system that can be used by communities in townships and other areas to better manage local issues such as fire outbreaks, education, crime and any other issues that are troubling society.
Incubators should be platforms that support and equip local people to develop local solutions for the community and the world.
Secondly, this is a major opportunity for South Africa to use technology to address the unemployment challenge. Young people in townships should be introduced to all forms of technology skills that will emanate from solutions developed through the incubators. The experience hurdle should be removed and interested young people be given an opportunity to learn. Mathematics should not be used as an excuse to exclude those who are interested in pursuing a career in technology. It’s a myth that all careers in tech require mathematics. Multidisciplinary skills are necessary in tech to solve societal challenges.
Thirdly, the call from SEDA cites the 4th industrial revolution as one of the reasons why this has to be done, which is understandable but should not distract from local issues. Decision makers should be careful of being driven mainly by tech interests but by real challenges. Challenges with education, housing, crime and economy should inform the types of solutions that will be developed in such incubators.
At the end of the day when society looks back in 5 years time the following questions should be asked: how many technology solutions have been developed from the incubators, what impact are those tech solutions making in society. These are some of the critical measuring sticks that should be used to determine the success of these incubators. South Africa should avoid the errors committed in the first version of tech incubators that just became office spaces. To avoid this, tech incubators should work closely with universities, local businesses and local governments to develop solutions that will make a difference for the economy and society.
Lastly, South Africa should be careful of modelling itself against countries that are already advanced in tech. Some solutions in their current form may not make sense in the local environment. South Africa will have to start with the basics as long as they are advancing society. Not all cutting edge technologies are necessary for current circumstances in South Africa. It would be a great mistake to copy the Silicon valley model or even the Shenzhen model if SA is not ready for them. Although some tech solutions are truly innovative they are not always ideal for local social conditions.
Here’s the final and last point and it is about what should be avoided at all cost if the plan to build incubators is to succeed. The enterprise development space is filled by professionals who consider themselves as veterans of the sector. The South African experience tells us that most of them have failed in building successful incubators that truly deliver. At the same time there are corporations in South Africa that have incubated companies that are leading the way today. There are also startups that have done well for themselves. Decision makers would do well to collaborate with those that have produced tangible results in the form of operating businesses that have scaled.
Wesley Diphoko is the Editor-In-Chief of FastCompany (SA) magazine.