Friday, 9 October 2009

Silicon Sahara

Silicon Valley, Silicon Fen – where to next for the hot bed of technology development?

In South Africa you can debate Cape Town vs Johannesburg vs Durban. Not much to debate this week, however, as the
Silicon Cape Initiative
kicks off. One sign of the interest in this is the fact that #siliconcape wa trending in second place on Twitter (globally), which is quite substantial attention.

But there are still hurdles, which events like this will hopefully address. And looking outside of South Africa is one of them. 10,768 patents were registered in South Africa in 2008, with over 7,000 registered by foreigners. Driving home grown talent and innovation is going to be the challenge, and the opportunity, open to innovation hubs, VCs, universities, corporate and entrepreneurs.

Focusing on domestic investment in technology should not be at the expense of international investment, however. As Duncan MacLeod points out in this week’s Financial Mail the country needs to open up to investors, not scare them away. If the collapse of the talks between MTN and India’s Bharti Airtel points to protectionism by the government, we have reason to worry. Regulatory, commercial and operational hurdles will need to be addressed to invite more international investment.

Beyond South Africa, there are definitely contenders for Silicon Safari winners. Rwanda seems to be making huge strides, in a large part because of President Kagame’s appetite and agenda.

One example is the
ICT Bus Project
that launched last week as part of the Rwanda Development Board’s eRwanda Project. Two large buses, equipped with a server, 20 laptops, printers, photocopiers, scanners and other multi-media facilities – a kind of mobile Internet cafe - takes access to previously denied p especially in rural areas. Delivering training for children and teachers, providing access to ICT for SMEs, farmers and entrepreneurs, is where we will see the digital divide start to narrow.

While the private sector is a major driver for advancements of this kind and socio-economic development, when it comes to communications, the government needs to be behind the industry – facilitating competition, new entrants, fair regulation etc. Where South Africa has entrepreneurs, investors, business and technology minds, they need to meet in the middle.

But a last word from Cyril Ramaphosa, executive chairman of investment company Shanduka Group, who yesterday put the onus back on businesses to help SA to produce the skilled people it needed to grow economically. “The South African corporate sector often says that the skills shortage bedevils them, but to my mind that is a lazy excuse. It is a failure to grasp the nettle, take bold moves and embark on sharp and pointed (strategies) to produce skilled people in any discipline.”

Sounds like a challenge to me.

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