Rebooting innovation in South Africa

Since I became the United States Ambassador to South Africa last October, I have met truly inspiring South Africans with great ideas almost every day.  I have been very impressed with South Africans’ ability to link abstract knowledge and real-world application. With such talent, it seems natural that this beautiful, vibrant country should become a global innovation hub for the 21st century.

Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan emphasised in his 2010 Budget Speech that “successful developmental states are built not just through public policy and state action, but also through national identity, social cohesion and responsible citizenship – through building social capital that reinforces trust and co-operation, in the place of conflict and fragmentation”.  It is exactly this social capital, which the government seeks to build, that can foster a unique and forward-looking culture of innovation here.

South Africa has great strength in the diversity of its people.  The depth of this diversity provides exciting and challenging possibilities to create a great incubator of social capital, innovation and entrepreneurism.

South Africans get technology

Today, more than ever before in history, the world has educated and connected citizens. South Africa is among the many countries whose populations are considered early adopters of new technology, and this trend is spreading quickly to a broader, more diverse sector of society every day.  These individuals have high expectations of, and expect responsiveness from, their governments and the private sector. Innovation is how those expectations are met.

Innovation is not just about making things bigger, faster or sleeker – it is ultimately the intuitive leap, the “aha!” moment that led to the lightbulb, the electric car, and today’s mobile technology that allows person-to-person banking in the most rural of communities. South Africa already has well-developed world-class pockets of innovation, invention and achievement. For example, the Joule is Africa’s first locally-manufactured and assembled, battery-powered and
zero-emissions car.  It was first unveiled at the Paris Motor Show in 2008, and again featured at the National Climate Change Conference in March 2009 in Johannesburg.

South Africa-born automotive designer Keith Helfet, in partnership with Optimal Energy, a Cape Town-based private company, designed the six-seater multi-purpose vehicle, which is propelled by a normal 220 volt home outlet battery.  The challenge today is expanding those pockets into wide open baskets of talent and creativity available to the kids in the townships as well as the suburban students already winning international science fair awards.

In the US there are multiple factors that support innovation – a higher education system that encourages creativity, leadership and action; a historic entrepreneurial ethos; cheap and abundant internet connectivity and a strong privately funded venture capital system. Many of Silicon Valley’s leading companies began as garage start-ups distinguished by self-reliance, initiative and enormous creativity.

Fail, fail and fail some more…

To this day, Silicon Valley remains a meritocracy. People are judged on what they can bring to the table, and are honored for bold steps, not incremental gains. Entrepreneurship requires an environment that rewards this type of risk-taking.  Every year, many, many ventures fail.  However, the successful entrepreneur sees failure as a learning
experience. This may be Silicon Valley’s (and America’s) secret: there is no shame in second, third or fourth tries. Entrepreneurs do not give up – not on their ideas, not on their teams and not on themselves.  South Africa can also nurture that atmosphere.

Policymakers are important in encouraging the growth of innovation. Government plays a role in the incubation of small business through transparent and efficient regulations, and government-supported linkages between universities, research institutions and business. Through policies that promote competition, governments can stimulate entrepreneurial activity. Innovation thrives where a nation has fostered strong infrastructure, and most importantly, cheap and abundant internet connectivity.  However, the most important factor is a government’s simple recognition that entrepreneurialism matters. Entrepreneurship blossoms when governments are willing to listen to and engage with innovators, whether social entrepreneurs or small business owners, and address their concerns.

As South Africa continues to invest in human resources and skills, there must be a universal partnership to do this across society.  The government, private sector, NGOs, unions and everyday citizens should all work together in acknowledging and supporting the critical role of innovation in building social capital and fostering entrepreneurship.

So, what are the basic steps to creating a more innovative and entrepreneurial South Africa?

  • Recognise that innovative entrepreneurs are a critical part of the future of the country;
  • Promote competition;
  • Identify and remove unnecessary regulations and red tape – nothing kills innovation faster than too much talk and not enough action;
  • Focus on ways to drive down the cost of internet connectivity, and make it more accessible to the people of South Africa;
  • Invest in people and make (and implement) real commitments to education, especially in the field of technology.

If the average tech entrepreneur is 30-years-old now, then the next generation of leaders is in school today and should be getting the education, encouragement and direction to step into the field in a few years.

The United States Peace Corps has placed volunteers in more than 200 rural primary schools in 100 communities — teaching, assisting teachers and organising community programmes for more than 32 000 young people in South Africa with a special focus on science and maths.  In addition, the US Mission, in partnership with the University of Pretoria, has invested in Mamelodi’s Mae Jemison US Science Reading Room, which offers year-round resources and programmes designed to inspire young people to pursue science and technology as a career. Once inspired, these young people can seek apprenticeships, internships and on-the-job training – all important steps to building the next generation of innovators.

South Africa, like the United States and other nations, faces the challenge of limited resources to address community issues. It is only through innovation that these gaps can be bridged: innovations in new health delivery systems to help those with HIV/Aids; innovations in new technology to increase the security of South African citizens; innovations in renewable energy to create jobs and energy security; innovations in agriculture to drive food security and rural development across the continent; innovations to reach and inspire learners from preschool to university and beyond.

South Africa needs entrepreneurs to create new jobs and to ensure that South Africa leads the continent, if not the world, in creating the technology that will affect all of us in the 21st century.

Innovation and entrepreneurship are about self-determination. A successful entrepreneur literally creates his or her own future. South Africa is characterised by this trait: it is a country that succeeded in creating a new future from the ashes of Apartheid.

Now, it is time to do that again. South Africa does not need to wait for innovation developed elsewhere – the right dynamism, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit are all right here.



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