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Cape Town will never be Silicon Valley, and that’s a good thing

As an American tech journalist who transplanted herself to Cape Town a year and a half ago, I get asked one question all the time: how do we compare to Silicon Valley?

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Now that I’ve travelled to Africa’s main tech hubs, interviewed dozens of entrepreneurs, tech execs, and investors and founded my own startup, CodeX, to train 100 000 coders in the next decade, I’m going to come out and say it.

There is no comparison. So stop making it. But before you give up hope on our tech ecosystem, read on.

The Valley is a singular, unique, once-in-a-universe phenomenon; a machine that turns brainpower into money through well-oiled networks of both servers and humans.

What it’s not: some magical melting pot of high IQs in a maze of office parks south of San Francisco conjuring search algorithms and your Facebook Wall out of thin air. From its very early days, Silicon Valley has been incubated and sponsored by the US government.

Stanford professor and Lean Startup forefather Steve Blank’s Secret History of Silicon Valley is a detailed account of the Valley’s first career of carrying out electronic surveillance against enemies of the US military.

Look past the mythology of garage-birthed megaliths, home-brewed computer clubs and chino-clad cap table wizards spotting the Zuck and Musk diamonds in the hoodied 20-something geek rough, and you can still find Uncle Sam pulling strings.

Facebook’s first investor and PayPal mafia boss Peter Thiel founded big data miner Palantir in 2004. The Lord of the Rings references run thick, with company t-shirts proclaiming “Protect the Shire,” meaning the American Homeland, an employee once told me. One of the earliest investors in this Big Brother juggernaut (credited with the finding of Osama bin Laden) was In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital arm.

There’s more. Wade through “How the CIA made Google.” If even 1% is true, the ties between the Valley and Washington are far deeper than previously known.

Does that take away from the talent and ingenuity of the Valley? Not at all. But less than an hour’s drive away, at UC Berkeley, the Manhattan Project led to the atomic bomb (lest anyone doubt the talent of its engineers and scientists), but no HP, Apple, Google, or Facebook. In Boston, Harvard and MIT beckon the world’s brightest engineering talent too, but it’s never come close to Silicon Valley.

Read more: MTN, UCT’s Graduate School of Business whip up R15m innovation deal

That doesn’t mean these cities aren’t full of opportunity for entrepreneurs and investors alike. The startup accelerator TechStars makes most of its bets outside the Valley. It started in Boulder, then expanded to Boston, Seattle, Austin, New York, Chicago, London and will surely do more. TechStars Co-Founder, VC, and prolific startup advocate Brad Feld’s Startup Communities boils down a great tech ecosystem to four main points:

  1. They must be led by entrepreneurs in a network-like — not hierarchy-type — manner;
  2. These entrepreneurs must take a long-term view and commit to building out the community over a generation;
  3. They must be inclusive of anyone who wants to join — those would be the feeders and include government officials, suppliers, students, employees, businesses, etc; and
  4. They must hold activities and events — other than cocktail parties — that engage the startup community as a whole (think incubators / accelerators; a TechStars or Startup Weekend-type initiative).

So let’s consider my hometown, New York City, aka the Center of the Universe. New Yorkers don’t do inferiority complexes in anything, but NYC wasn’t really even on the map in Web 2.0 tech just five years ago. And yet in 2014 it surpassed Boston as the second largest metro area for venture capital financing.

How did it happen? I’d argue: sheer will. I spent a year documenting the first TechStars program in NYC in 2011, when the new Silicon Alley (not that anyone calls it that) rose out of the ashes of the global financial crisis. The accelerator was undoubtedly one catalyst for the powerful ecosystem we see today, along with the entrepreneurs who founded startups like ZocDoc, Etsy, Thrillist, Makerbot, and Gilt Groupe (see point 1).

Helped along by former mayor Mike Bloomberg, the city has dedicated an entire island to building Cornell Tech, no doubt meant to rival Stanford in luring the best and brightest to grow NYC’s ecosystem in coming decades (point 2, check).

Read more: 6 reasons why SA’s Western Cape deserves to be called Silicon Cape

As for points 3 and 4, see the 1 000 person-strong NY Tech Meetup, the emergence of Union Square Ventures’ Fred Wilson as a thought leader in VC, and literally thousands of hackathons, pitch nights, meetups, accelerators, co-working spaces, angel groups, the city’s Open Data policy, and more.

But NYC tech isn’t Silicon Valley tech — tech for tech’s sake.

In New York, tech is mainly a disruptor of outdated business models in other industries. Ad-tech, fin-tech, ed-tech, health-tech, tech for real estate, fashion, art, food, sports, the list goes on.

That is exactly what’s happening here in this resource-constrained continent busting with opportunity, ingenuity and innovation, but not Scrooge McDuck’s vault full of dollars to swim in.

Tech in Africa is disrupting communication, banking, energy, education, health, agriculture, mining, logistics, and transportation, retail; all the fundamental drivers of the economy. In Cape Town, we can throw in insurance, advertising, film, design, and urban planning.

How do we stack up on the Startup Communities metrics?

  1. Led by entrepreneurs in a network type manner: from Silicon Cape to Startup Grind to 88mph to RLabs, Stellenbosch Digital, Silulo Ulutho and more, Cape Town is full to the brim of entrepreneurs doing awesome things to help more entrepreneurs do more awesome things;
  2. These entrepreneurs must take a long-term view and commit to building out the community over a generation: Serial entrepreneurs are investing in new startups all the time (not just on Dragon’s Den, but also in real life!); we at codeX are not only training new coders but building pipelines from schools and training centers in townships and hosting Open Days with free computer access to online courses to onboard more awesome young talent into the ecosystem;
  3. Inclusive of anyone who wants to join: So far as I can tell, tech is the most welcoming community in Cape Town! Sign up for a free Railsbridge course and a local developer spends their Friday night helping you set up your text editor. UCT and Launchlab host student hackathons and pitch nights. Cape Town has opened its municipal data to entrepreneurs, following NYC’s example. Creative Commons hosts book salons. The Bandwidth Barn hosts loads of events for newbies to the tech scene. All easy to find through Silicon Cape’s newsletter and Twitter feed;
  4. Events other than cocktail parties: As this New Yorker would say, fugeddaboudit. Silicon Cape Academy. Pearson’s Edupreneurs ed-tech accelerator. Simodisa’s dialogue with government. U-Start bringing in foreign investors. Entrepreneur Traction breakfasts. Startup Weekend. SW7 accelerator. Arduino workshops at Ogilvy. Scrum User Group South Africa meetups. Net Prophet and SparkUp. Tech4Africa. Google Developer Groups in Cape Town, Athlone, Stellenbosch. The list goes on.

Cape Town definitely does invite comparisons to Northern California, what with its skinny-jeaned fixie riders, artisanal pickles and wooden sunglasses, its farmers’ markets and wine farms, even its geography. Let’s leave it at that.

Because we’ll never be Silicon Valley. But neither will New York, London, Berlin, Boulder, Seattle, Singapore, Shanghai, Santiago, Tel Aviv, Cairo, or any of the world’s up-and-coming tech hubs.

Trust me, I’m not making it up because I drank too much Shiraz. Cape Town is one of the cities of the world leading the journey to a digital future.

Yeah, it’s called Silicon Cape, it’s just shorthand for our awesome community. Own it. Love it. Be proud of it. Support it. Dedicate your time to it. As Startup Communities says: Give to it, and you will get back so much more.

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