Tech a look at this: SA embracing fourth industrial revolution with home-grown innovations

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Speakers at the SA Innovation Summit say the country is starting to produce more tech solutions locally.
Speakers at the SA Innovation Summit say the country is starting to produce more tech solutions locally.
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  • The three-day SA Innovation Summit began in Cape Town on Tuesday. 
  • Entrepreneurs and companies who spoke at the summit say SA is starting to realise that it needs to embrace innovation and create disruptive solutions locally - instead of importing solutions developed abroad.
  • From V-commerce platforms to digitising township economies, there are many projects under development.

It might not have a concentration of Fortune 500 companies or churning out unicorns at the rate of Silicon Valley, but technology innovation is maturing in SA.

The management consulting firm Convergenc3 runs a "factory" that develops dozens of digital startups every year and takes ten to 20 of those to market.

Telkom is digitising businesses in the townships, moving that economy beyond spaza shops. And many other JSE-listed companies are backing tech startups and running a host of innovation programmes within their organisations.

Preparing for increased convergence of industries

Speaking at the SA Innovation Summit on Tuesday, Stefan Smit, CEO and founder of Convergenc3, said the firm - which only employs industrial engineers - has 40 digital businesses that its engineers have built. They are all focused on future technologies. Every engineer in the company must build a digital business.

As different industries converge more - retailers sell insurance, banks venture into e-commerce, and everybody tries to be a bit of everything - Convergenc3 is building the platforms they need to outdo one another.

"We've built some really interesting stuff like facial recognition [for] payments. We've done peer-to-peer payments with your face. We built a V-commerce marketplace which is a 360-degree shopping [platform] from anywhere in the world. You can walk through the Mall of Africa and actually shop, even if you are sitting at home," said Smit.

Telkom said its FutureMakers innovation incubator programme is starting to shift township economies from focusing on spaza shops and service businesses that revolve only around where they are located.

Last year, the mobile network operator launched the Township Innovation programme to help entrepreneurs on the outskirts of cities make their businesses more digital.

Mmathebe Zvobwo, the executive of enterprise and supplier development at Telkom FutureMakers, said the company thought if it could find entrepreneurial-minded people and give them technologies to work with, they could come up with a lot of solutions to problems faced by people who live far from amenities or in bad conditions.

Already, one of the entrepreneurs in the programme ran a medicine drop-off pilot project in Soweto. It's like an Uber, but for medicine. That startup has since secured a contract with the Department of Health.

"When people think of the township, they think spazas. There's nothing wrong with the spazas, but we are saying that if we're going to have innovation, it must be inclusive," said Zvobwo.

Corporate SA 'hungry' for home-grown innovations

João Barreto, head of innovation at Nestlé, said corporates in SA are starting to invest more in the startup ecosystem. There's a growing realisation that while venture capital firms might get these tech innovations off the ground, they need the support of companies to bloom like some of the Silicon Valley startups.

Barreto said since the company launched its open innovation platform, the Nestlé Hatcher, it received almost 300 submissions from tech entrepreneurs who responded to the two challenges it invited innovators to in the past six months.

"I think we in South Africa are going into that space. I think Covid-19 also brought a lot of interest in finding that agility and flexibility from startups," said Barreto.

Zvobwo said SA is starting to realise that it needs to embrace innovation and create disruptive solutions locally instead of importing solutions developed abroad by people who don't even know the conditions faced by the majority of the population.

"I think what's starting to happen over the past few years is that corporate South Africa became really hungry for startups. And not just startups ... I think it's really hungry in terms of how to get new value propositions in, how to do things differently. We are definitely at the exploration stages," she said.

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