Africa: Ignore at your peril

Africa: Ignore at your peril

Summary: A trip to South Africa was an eye opener. Here's why.


This holiday season I took the opportunity to guzzle air miles and booked a long haul to Cape Town, South Africa. For those unfamiliar with geography it's best to think about it as the last stop before Antarctica.

My expectations were low as I had no clue what the country would hold and thought of it as one of those bucket list places you only ever visit once. What an eye opener. Whatever follows is bound to be skewed by limited experience. Even so, I got the firm sense this is a country on the move yet one that enterprise vendors ignore at their peril. 

Over the years I've visited a clutch of countries in North Africa but have never seen them as anything other than interesting holiday destinations. None have captured my imagination other than wondering at the beauty of the Sahara desert and then musing how much solar power could be generated from this otherwise inhospitable part of the world. However, South Africa was an altogether different experience. My sense is that it is the people that make the difference. 

school with electric fence

There is no escaping the fact that South Africa is a country that, to the outsider, is horribly conflicted. I was told that 64 percent of black South Africans continue to live in extreme poverty, more than 19 years after the de facto ending of apartheid. The vision of poverty and luxury side-by-side jars the senses. The wait staff at my hotel cannot live without the 10-15 percent tips that are not foisted upon the individual but are, nonetheless, encouraged.

Yet after talking to people of all colors, creeds and background, it was apparent to me that this is a place of great hope and vision for the future. It was best epitomized by one trader I met in Stellenbosch who said: "South Africa gets a bad rap for all the political stuff but for all the problems, it is a great place to live and work." I don't doubt that is true for many. 

Listening to the harrowing stories of those who have suffered under the apartheid regime was heartbreaking, yet the message of hope could not have been louder. Personally, I find it incomprehensible how any oppressed people can be as forgiving as the black South Africans appear to be. Yet the friendship, curiosity and constant smiles from a people who have endured so much is something that will live long in our memories. But what of technology?

wharf vista


Some six months or so ago I was discussing the future of mobile with a senior SAP executive. I suggested that Africa is a continent that has to be ripe for investment. It met with a lukewarm response. Now I get why. The telephony infrastructure is very unevenly distributed and in South Africa and the maximum available data speed is pitifully low when compared with the best in the world. According to Skyrove, daata speed in South Africa ranks 93rd in the world. My experience is that Wi-Fi access, while good in some places, is extremely expensive. It is a hard fact of life that without a fast Internet, it is difficult to imagine how any vendor would be seriously tempted to invest in this country. Having said that, I saw many obvious opportunities. 

Contrary to much of what I have seen written, the majority of people I saw were using smartphones. While Apple doesn't have an official presence in the country, there is independent representation. I saw a packed iStore at one of the shopping malls and there are plenty of phone sales outlets vying for trade - some of which were touting the latest Samsung devices. I saw plenty of instances of QR codes being used in imaginative ways to both promote products and provide useful information. The hotel staff was totally at ease with using the Internet to both search and book visits while 'chip-and-pin' credit card machines are the norm. The overall experience was on a par with anything I have found in northern Europe and, in some cases, better than the US. 

The week before we arrived, Absa, the country's largest retail bank announced:

South African bank Absa and payment innovations company Thumbzup have signed an agreement to launch a mobile payment device, Payment Pebble, which will enable small businesses and entrepreneurs to accept debit or credit card payments through smartphones or tablets.

Payments will be made through a world first, plug-in device called "The Absa Payment Pebble", the bank said in a statement last week.

"The Absa Payment Pebble" is a small card-reader device that can be plugged into the audio input on any mobile smartphone or tablet and used along with a mobile application.

The country has an active mentorship and funding program for young innovators and everywhere I went I met  Africans eager to become better educated. Curiously, they were not looking to Europe or the US for those opportunities but were hoping to remain close to their homes and families. That's a good thing because the more people who become better educated and remain in country, the better the chances of the country making significant strides towards a better life. This in a place where there are eleven official languages and everyone seems to be at least bi-lingual.

ice truck

One example for mobile opportunity is for the ice delivery trucks that service the bar and hotel trade. Mounds of paperwork accompany delivered goods but I saw as an immediate need for mobile management. 

Any assessment from just over a week spent in a country for the first time has to be superficial and this is no exception. But having had the experience of a lifetime, I am eager to return and see other parts of a country that both stirs the imagination and restores ones faith in the goodness of human nature. 

Oh, and if you think that this is just the musings of a star struck out of towner visiting a new country then check out what some Etheopian kids did with an Android device. (Kudos to Greg Chase.)

Images by author




Topic: Enterprise Software

Dennis Howlett

About Dennis Howlett

Dennis Howlett is a 40 year veteran in enterprise IT, working with companies large and small across many industries. He endeavors to inform buyers in a no-nonsense manner and spares no vendor that comes under his microscope.

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  • Well, South Africa is better off than many of the others.

    "A trip to South Africa was an eye opener."

    Yup. It's South Africa.

    South Africa is a major industrial center in a pretty large continent that is AFAIK still mostly tribal. Cell phones are actually becoming a bit more common as more cell towers are being put up, but I wouldn't count on full internet access outside the major cities of most nations. It's best to make sure you load up on apps that are capable of offline access to your data.
  • Another example of irresponsible reporting

    Yes, South Africa is a fabulous country. Anyone who has spent any amount of time there will agree with this. There have also been many brilliant technological innovations that have come from there.

    However, to write an article about a country bigger than the whole of Western Europe based on the experiences of a single city (arguably the best city in the country), and then encouraging people to do business there, without looking at the situation in the rest of the country is blatantly irresponsible.

    Especially when one considers that official figures will tell you that there are on average 50 murders a DAY committed in that country, and it is the rape capital of the world - never mind the rest of the horrific crime figures, and the rampant corruption. And we have not even begun to mention the statutory anti-white business legislation. (Yes, look it up for yourself - it's listed under Black Economic Empowerment)

    Come on Mr Howlett, let us have some responsible reporting and tell the whole story so that anyone thinking of investing in this wonderful but mortally dangerous country can do so with a more complete picture.

    I also find your ignorant, stereotypical, politically correct biased snippets nauseating.
    • Another example of irresponsible commentating

      And I find your ignorant, stereotypical, politically biased comment nauseating.
      I'm South African - yes we have a crime problem , but do you have any poof of the figures you are mentioning ? There is no "anti-white" legislation , just a program to promote black graduates into jobs. You sound like a bitter ex-South African that "ran away".
      Thando Gqabaza
      • I thought preferring one

        Color over another in law was what the evil of appartheid was all about. I guess it's OK though as long as you are preferring the right color. Racism hiding behind "righting old wrongs" is still racism, and is still ugly.
      • Wrong again!

        I am British but have lived all over southern Africa for nearly 40 years, including 26 years in South Africa. Africa is a beautiful continent with abundant natural resources, and should be the wealthiest continent in the world, but it in general the entire continent has been mismanaged.

        I am also a father and a businessman. I had 2 children in school and owned a successful IT business employing 17 staff of all races and genders. However, both my children experienced racism, abuse and armed robberies in their schools, and I was legislated out of the bigger contracts because I refused to give a way half of the business that I had built from scratch to someone of the right colour just so that I could get these contracts.

        So no, I am not an ex-South African, and neither did I run away, but when my children became targets, I called time-out, and when business was becoming increasingly difficult because of the colour of my skin, I decided to go home and take my skills with me.

        I now have another IT business which counts people of other colours amongst its best customers, which was something that was becoming increasingly difficult to do in SA.

        And finally, the primary point of my initial comment was that Africa is a fabulous place with abundant resources and opportunities, but there are serious mortal risks involved in being there, and if you are the wrong colour, there is legislation that needs to be circumvented in order to be successful in business - something that I was not prepared to do.
    • Why Lie?

      Please post some evidence to your statistics, I live in JHB and have lived in SA for the past 26 years and have not once been effected by crime. And Rape capital of the world, I recommend you compare your stats to that of India, you might get a surprise. also 50 murders a day that's absurd ands still nothing compared to the US school shootings taking place every second month.
      • Dead men don't lie!

        If you want some statistics, have a look here: - a brief Google search wil bring up loads more.

        In South Africa, I have had 3 guns stuck in my chest, my wife was mugged at gunpoint whilst walking down the main street of her home town with our children, both my children experienced armed hi-jackings in their school grounds and were both mugged in the street, our home was broken into 4 times in the year before we left - despite 8 foot high concrete walls, dogs, home alarms, burglar guards, armed response etc, on two occasions I found dead bodies in the street of people who had been murdered, and that's just some of the incidents involving me and my immediate family!

        I have lost several friends who were shot dead for their posessions, and I know countless people who have been hi-jacked, robbed, mugged, raped, etc.

        When I lived in South Africa I also defended it to the hilt, but eventually the reality started seeping through, and when my children became targets, that was the last straw.

        You can debate the statistics as much as you like, but the local reports are badly skewed - I know this because in a misguided attempt to make a difference, my wife and I were heavily involved in our local community watch comprising over 10,000 households, and we met with the Police and local authorities on a monthly basis as well as being very involved in other community based support projects - all voluntary I might add. We saw first hand what was going on in our community and others, and it was shocking. The worst of it was that very little ever made it to the news as it was mostly suppressed.

        You may think that 50 murders a day is absurd, but I saw a piece of it first hand in the little corner of the country where I lived, and 50 is nowhere close.

        I am not talking statistics here, I am talking personal experience. I loved the country and left with a very heavy heart, but I have moved on.

        Anyone thinking of doing business in South Africa would do well to do some research first...
  • Africa's and South Africa's ICT

    As a resident South African I can appreciate your optimism for our country, and while I think it's not without challenges for you to write an article on tech on the 'dark continent' based on a short holiday to Cape Town, your comments are not without merit. For a bit of perspective on SA's tech scene check out the forum

    Cape Town is SA's burgeoning ICT hub, with numerous call-centres and IT head offices based in the city (as an example, Groupon are based in Cape Town). Mark Shuttleworth of Ubuntu fame founded his first business, Thawte Consulting, in Cape Town. Of course, Johannesburg is South Africa's major economic hub, and so for that reason many IT and tech companies are based there.

    South Africa and indeed the rest of the continent has beneftted greatly from mobile telecommunications, an industry were barriers to entry, infrastructure costs and capital costs are lower than in historical fixed line operations. This has as you know been tremendous for small and micro business owners (eg. a fisherman in Kenya texting to get the market price for his catch before deciding whether it's worth the long trip to the market) and of course for education in far-flung areas.

    One interesting aspect of our mobile culture is the enormous market share that RIM/Blackberry has in SA. As you alluded to in the article, wifi is not prolific here and so in lieu of this, Blackberry's cheap, unlimited data offerings have proven extremely popular. Nokia still has a great reputation from the good old days of 'feature phones', but Blackberry has by far the lion's share of the smartphone market. This is also true in other African countries, and it goes to show that RIM have not got it all completely wrong - a potential market of 800 million individuals on the continent is nothing to smirk about.

    Anyway, thanks for an interesting outsider's perspective on SA, next time you're here you must visit Durban in Kwazulu-Natal where the ocean is warm and the Big 5 are in abundance.
  • I live in South Africa

    I live in South Africa and you seem to have your own opinion about the country. your opinion however is way off since I have had worse Internet access speeds in the US at some places then in SA in some places, depends where you are ect. Cape Town is also not that much of a city and more a holiday resort/destination. In Johannesburg Telkom is rolling out 40mbps connections with much much less latency then that of the US, since you have a 100mb pipe with a contingency ratio of like 1/100. I'm by no means saying our telecommunications infrastructure is better then that of the US but we are far away from terrible. Also you need to remind yourself that South Africa is a small country of +/- 60 Million people as opposed to +300 Million and therefore much less competitiveness so naturally things progress a little slower here in some aspects. But in Others I am running a 4 Node SQL Server 2012 cluster on a Windows 2012 DC platform. So not that far behind...From the Irish South African.
  • Geography lesson

    "South Africa. For those unfamiliar with geography it's best to think about it as the last stop before Antarctica."
    My goodness!! Except maybe for the CONTINENTS of South America and Australia! Try Googling for world map.