Silicon Valley, RSA

2009-10-13 00:00

THURSDAY was one of those days when I felt that I was at the start of something special. Packed into a large room with 500 of the country’s most dynamic young entrepreneurs, a dream took root. The dream: to turn Cape Town into South Africa’s version of the famed Silicon Valley.

No, this wasn’t the first step towards making Cape Town the plastic surgery epicentre of the south, but rather an information technology ecosystem that would attract local and foreign investors, the brightest technical talent, and the most promising entrepreneurs, to foster the creation and growth of world-class intellectual property start-up companies.

The original Silicon Valley is in the southern part of the San Francisco Bay area in the United States. Thousands of hi-tech companies are headquartered there, including giants like Apple, Google, Intel and Hewlett- Packard. It is a leading research and development area and serves as a magnet for the world’s most brilliant minds.

Cape Town shares some striking similarities with San Francisco. Firstly, there is the natural beauty that makes each city a desirable place to live. Secondly, the proximity to excellent universities, particularly Stanford and the University of Cape Town (which was ranked as the 146th best university in the world in the World University Rankings). Thirdly, the existing culture of innovation and start-up technology companies and a subculture of “geeks” (digitally obsessed individuals). And fourthly, both areas have government support for an IT hub.

South Africa has a proud track record in tech innovation. At the Silicon Cape launch, MC and online media guru Matthew Buckland reeled off a list of South Africa’s world-class Internet entrepreneurs: “Ubuntu chief Mark Shuttleworth, Paypal founder Elon Musk, Roelof Botha at Sequoia Capital (the venture capitalists behind Google and YouTube), Gareth Knight who founded Kindo, Brent Hoberman from Lastminute.com, Paul Maritz (often said to be the third-ranking executive at Microsoft, behind Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer). Locally, we have some companies making waves overseas including MXit, Yola and Clickatell, and Naspers owns one of the biggest instant-messenging clients in the world, TenCent in China.”

Silicon Cape is being driven by two young, dynamic South African tech entrepreneurs: Vinny Lingham and Justin Stanford. They believe that Cape Town is where Silicon Valley was 15 years ago. Lingham and Stanford say that Silicon Cape is already happening in South Africa, but it is small and taking place in isolated, fragmented pockets.

Creating an ecosystem that exports innovation and intellectual property would have immense long-term benefits for the country. Like tourism, information technology should be a significant part of the the present and future of the South African economy, with our dependence on finite natural resource exploitation consigned to the past.

There are many obstacles to be overcome, such as inadequate intellectual property protection and a regulatory environment that is not particularly entrepreneur- friendly. These are certainly surmountable and as Stanford said, “South Africans have a strong work ethic, innovative minds and a formidable can-do attitude”.

In a short space of time, Stanford and Lingham have received the support of some high-profile South Africans. I’m sure that if you had asked them who they would like to back the initiative, they might have said one of South Africa’s most successful businessmen, a leading politically connected academic and the premier of the Western Cape ... and that is who they have roped in: Johann Rupert, Mamphela Ramphele and Helen Zille.

With that kind of backing, it is clear to see just how important this initiative is.

“The country has an opportunity to become a net exporter of intellectual property, right now,” believes Lingham. “If we don’t, we will remain a net exporter of talent.”

No country can afford to export talent and especially not a developing country such as South Africa. The talent we have needs to be nurtured, supported and offered an environment in which to thrive.

The excitement during the launch was palpable. There was a real sense, as Buckland put it, that ”here, today, history is being made”. With the likes of Rupert, Ramphele and Zille behind it, and with the energy of young entrepreneurs (who are used to taking ideas from conception through to implementation) driving it forward, the dream of a South African Silicon Valley is destined to become a reality. — From South Africa The Good News (www.sagoodnews.co.za)

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