South Africa faces unique social challenges as a result of Apartheid, but on the positive side, the country’s military background and previous sanctions has given it distinct technological advantages.
This is according to Stafford Masie, who formerly headed up Google Africa and started Google’s South African presence, founded Thumbzup Innovation and recently partnered with Absa to launch the Absa Payment Pebble, which essentially “converts the customer’s phone into a card payments acceptance device”.
Addressing UCT’s Graduate School of Business to visiting Executive MBA students from HEC Paris, Masie says pessimism about technological innovation in South Africa and Africa as a whole is misguided.
“People say we were left behind because of Apartheid, but this is only partially true. Yes, it was bad. Yes, we have infrastructural challenges. Yes, it is difficult. But the other side of the coin is that there are also many South Africans who are very highly skilled and have military backgrounds. I’ve got astrophysicists and nuclear physicists working for me who can apply their minds to the challenges we have. This is a beautiful thing,” he says.
Infrastructural and social challenges could also work to technology’s advantage, he adds.
Masie says the combination of social and infrastructural challenges faced throughout Africa meant that products made on the continent simply had to find ways to work. Extra innovation was required to overcome challenges and there could not be over-reliance on existing technological systems. Moreover, he says, lower levels of literacy meant that greater user-friendliness is a must.
“In Australia, for example, everyone has power; everyone has literacy. It is easy over there. Here, because of our constraints, we have to innovate. If it works here, it will work anywhere. We walk in with legitimacy right away.
“The draw to move over to the US is strong. But if you are an inventive, conviction-led entrepreneur, you will work over here,” he says.
According to Masie, it is limiting to view innovation through only one lens. He says the great technological breakthroughs in Africa will be needs-driven rather than focusing on saleability.
“Africa’s innovations are not market-driven. We do not produce things that make people click ‘like’. But the next Facebook of agriculture, the next Twitter of water purification will come from Africa,” he says.
Referring to his Payment Pebble and other innovations to make electronic payments simpler, Masie says Africa was ahead of the rest of the globe.
“People ask: What do you do in Africa in banking? We are ahead of the world. [That’s because] we deal with socioeconomic challenges that are a bit different. This is not about Africa catching up. We lead the way,” he says.
“What we see happening in Africa is the unlocking of latent human capital. That will solve some of the world’s biggest problems. It’s a different view.”