Africa: Ignore at your peril

A trip to South Africa was an eye opener. Here's why.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

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.)

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