Tech4Africa’s Gareth Knight: Africa needs real tech heroes

Africa needs heroes. Real heroes, who build innovative products for the continent and live on the continent, not exiles who’ve found their fortunes in the US and Europe. That was the message from Tech4Africa founder Gareth Knight on Thursday, as he announced plans by the African conferencing series to expand its role in the African tech space.

According to Knight, the south African tech space hasn’t had nearly enough collaboration, with a lot of interests serving themselves rather than the industry as a whole.

“We think we could be doing a hell of a lot,” said Knight, referring to the Tech4Africa journey so far. But, he says, the organisation has been holding back until now “because we’ve been waiting for other people to do it”.

Inspired by a 2006 trip to SxSW in Austin, Tech4Africa got off the ground in 2010 with around 400 delegates. Back then, it was a single annual event in Johannesburg. By 2014, there were four events in the series — with Cape Town, Lagos, and Kenya joining Johannesburg — hosting more than 1 300 attendees.

Despite that growth though, Knight still feels frustrated at the slow rate of change in the African tech space.

“The opportunity in Africa is fucking huge,” he said, citing the nearly 750-million mobile users on the continent. With the price of smartphones constantly falling, they’re very quickly going to become the device of choice for the majority of those users.

“The market opportunity is huge and everyone is sleeping,” the Tech4Africa founder reiterated.

“In 2006, when I went to SXSW, my world got flipped upside down,” said Knight. And in part that’s because he got to meet a bunch of the people who built the tech he was using on a daily basis at that stage.

That’s what Knight is hoping to achieve with Tech4Africa and, following the closure of his UK-based online furniture store Wedo and birth of his first child, he’s out to redouble the organisation’s efforts.

“Africa needs heroes,” says Knight. “We don’t need to be looking at Elon Musk and wondering how to replicate what he’s doing”.

As the Tech4Africa founder points out: “This is Africa. Everything is different”.

According to Knight, “there are a lot of people talking about innovation”, but not a lot of people actually doing things that are actually innovative.

“Africa needs real innovation, not copycats,” he said. And according to Knight, if that’s going to happen then there needs to be continent-wide collaboration.

“We don’t think we can build an ecosystem in just one city, or just one country,” he told the Tech4Africa audience.

While Knight isn’t 100% clear on how Tech4Africa plans to change the status qu, he’s pretty clear on what isn’t working. “SiliconCape is not Africa, he said, adding that “we shouldn’t try to replicate the Valley”.

If Africa is to lift itself up, without relying on international funding, as Knight thinks it does then it can’t rely on the odd unicorn (or billion dollar plus companies) crawling out of the woodwork.

Even in more developed markets, unicorns are relatively rare. There’s a reason they’re called unicorns.

Instead, says Knight, “Africa needs thousands of sustainable SMEs,” employing anywhere between five and 50 people. It makes sense. The more people who get involved in building innovative businesses, the more people are going to want to build innovative businesses.

Tech4Africa obviously can’t facilitate that required explosion on its own. No organisation can. It has to be an ecosystem, with every part of the ecosystem playing into every other part.

What it can do is give people a stage to talk about their innovations and provide a platform for the African tech heroes we don’t know about yet.

Could all the rhetoric and enthusiasm blow up in Knight’s face? Sure, that’s the nature of the beast. But it would probably be best for the African tech space if it didn’t.



Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights. sign up

Welcome to Ventureburn

Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights.