A rant: South Africa needs a startup culture

Lira College students’ innovation of a solar-powered wheelchair — source:https://www.newvision.co.ug

One really funny thing about South Africa is the top down approach to everything. Problems faced by the everyday person are solved by someone in an office who has never experienced these problems, and is so far divorced from the solution they come up with that they need to hire a third party to implement it.

Most South Africans have seen some version of this. It goes something like this:

  1. You get person A from a fancy suburb, who’s only been to a township twice to donate stuff — if at all — trying to solve a problem in a township.
  2. More often than not when person A finds a “solution” it is so far outside of their area of expertise or job description that they need to hire person B to implement it.
  3. There is a disconnect between person A and the actual problem. And there is a disconnect between person B and person A. And there is a disconnect between person B and the problem. So when the “solution” gets implemented it is usually of poor quality, and very imposing, requiring users to go out of their way to use it (see figure 1 below).

As a software engineer I am usually person B. I am hired to solve a software problem for person A, who has no idea what I do, who was contracted by another person who has no idea what I do. All in all nobody has any idea what I do, they just know tech is the hip thing and they are making enough money to pay a “tech person”. Worst of all, nobody knows how exactly my software is going to solve the person on the ground’s problem.

Obviously, the problem with this approach is that it hardly ever solves the person on the ground’s problem. The people at the top always make assumptions about the end user and the problem. Additionally, they are usually unable to implement their “solution”, so they have so consult with third parties.

Consulting with third parties comes with an additional layer of complication, because the third parties are usually agencies that charge hourly or provide a quote per the initial scope of the project (and then charge hourly for changes). Basically, it always gets to the point where agencies charge you hourly despite the quality of their work or its effectiveness in solving the problem at hand.

So the final “solution” is usually the absolute bare minimum of what the people at the top had in mind, because the project was either scoped poorly initially, or they went over budget, or there was a fallout between the people at the top and the third parties, and the whole thing got too expensive too fast. Needless to say maintaining such “solutions” is always a nightmare.

At the heart of startup culture is an approach that aims to solve all these problems by simply encouraging a person on the ground who’s experienced the problem and has the necessary skills (or can acquire them) to solve the problem. What this allows for at the outset of a project is a good understanding of the end user, a practical solution, a solution that can be sustained by the creator, and faster iterations on the solution if something needs to be updated, added or removed. All of this allows for organic growth for the project.

The closest example of this that we have in South Africa that I can think of is the taxi industry which was started in the late 1970s. It is currently the most widely available and affordable mode of transport.

I think that South Africa needs more of this, a startup culture which prioritises bottom up solutions. A startup culture in the ‘I’ve experienced this problem so I will solve it’ way, or in the ‘I’m in this field so I will solve the problem’ way. The opposite of ‘I was in banking, finance or consulting and now I have money so I will start a traditional top down company and call it a startup because it uses some technology’ way.

Below are some of the reasons why I think we do not have a vibrant startup culture.

Inequality

South Africa, as a result of Apartheid, is the most economically unequal country in the world consequently the people on the ground hardly ever have the resources (financial, legal or technical) to solve problems from the bottom up.

Credentialism

South Africa is still obsessed with credentials. For a multitude of reasons, including our history, we are a permission seeking society. Lots of us still believe you need permission from some institution to start doing things. Additionally credentialism is really good proxy for racism and classism. As a result people conveniently “struggle” to comprehend how people without “the relevant credentials” can solve a problem.

Hero System

“Show me the heroes that the youth of your country look up to, and I will tell you the future of your country.”

— Idowu KoyenikanToo

At the end of the day a culture is only as good as its heroes.

Unfortunately South Africa has too many suits and too many bureaucrats who make phone calls for a living as heroes. I had a hard time trying to think of 1 South African icon who is not an entertainer or does not wear a suit to work.

As a result of our national history the culture still — somehow — creates people who want to be accountants, bankers, bureaucrats and government officials. Some of the smartest people we have are literally trying to be management consultants — person B in figure 1.

Funding

In the areas with Venture Capital culture most Venture Capitalist are people who started startups in the past, made money from them and are now investing in startups.

It is therefore no a surprise that South Africa doesn’t have much of a VC culture. Just a few suits trying to cash in on the next big thing.

I build software and occasionally have thoughts on non-software related subjects. https://dacod.co.za

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