A few weeks ago, I found myself at a round-table discussion about the opportunities available to our generation as a result of the exponential growth expected from the digital economy in South Africa. The discussion quickly came down to what exactly was meant by the digital economy. Is it happening outside the “normal” economy, or are we saying the “old” economy will now be a digitised “new” economy?
Well, it has to be the latter.
Having judged the 2018 FNB Business Innovation Awards, I can safely say that the world as we know it is changing every day, and fast. The winner was Saryx Engineering, started and run by two women who dared to challenge the industrial world of men with insights and a great, yet simple, technological innovation.
Julie Mathieson and Ingrid Osborne founded Saryx in 2007, initially as a provider of ICT, process control and automation for large mining corporations.
At the time, most Saryx employees were working on client sites, away from the office, and required many legal and compliance documents, carried in lever-arch files.
They figured there had to be an easier way. So they built a web-based system that automatically digitised company safety and compliance, allowing a company to track document compliance itself, as well as securely share these documents with clients in a collaborative workflow platform, accessible at any time.
Enter HSEC Online, which was initially their own internal system to make their jobs easier. Until they realised that their peers and clients had an even bigger problem that their system could solve.
These two women have nearly 1000 customers and their innovation has quickly become the industry standard. It helps save lives by compelling industrial businesses to stay compliant with safety laws and their own standards. This is a world first, and one that can easily be replicated in other markets.
As much as my fellow judges and I loved every finalist in the awards, the question of inclusivity kept coming up. How do we generate more “ready for the world stage” entrepreneurs like Julie and Ingrid?
That speaks to the nature of our entrepreneurship ecosystem. Is there enough support not only for start-ups but also for scale-ups, which can become global players and employ tons of South Africans?
Google recently commissioned OC&C Strategy to identify areas for improvement in policies and regulations affecting tech entrepreneurship success in South Africa. The results were as astounding as they were encouraging.
In a country where half the population is under the age of 24 and unemployment is at 26.7%, creating an enabling environment for entrepreneurship and innovation is a matter of life and death.
OC&C says: “On measures of tech entrepreneurship outputs, South Africa ranks below many of the top-performing countries, but above several of its emerging-market peers. The output indicators for innovation creation – the volume of innovation generated by the country overall, and the amount of innovative products and services generated by entrepreneurs – demonstrate that South Africa outperforms many emerging-market peers, yet is still significantly behind the top performers.”
In comparison to other developing countries, we are apparently up there when it comes to government support of entrepreneurs. The state’s BBBEE initiatives, especially around enterprise and supplier development programmes, were referred to as a key catalyst.
However, we have three key areas for improvement.
The first is that “the foundations of the education system are unable to support the development of tech entrepreneurship within South Africa on a broad scale”.
Also, our universities are lagging behind global standards when it comes to readying graduates for a technologically advanced world. Basically, we are training a workforce for jobs that no longer exist, at least not in their current form.
The second area we need to work on, according to the report, relates to “the rich network of support services offered to young companies not being monitored and managed to ensure maximum impact on entrepreneurs”. While our ecosystem offers many benefits to entrepreneurs, it remains fragmented.
Our third challenge is that “much of the support has focused on creating early-stage start-ups and entrepreneurs, with little focus on mapping out the full journey of entrepreneurship and creating support initiatives along the way”.
The one comment from every finalist we judged in the awards was about the value they derived from going through the Endeavor South Africa process. This global organisation that focuses on scale-ups prodded the business models of each finalist. The awards have come and gone, but we all need to find a way to nurture these entrepreneurs to go onto the world stage and • succeed. Otherwise, what was the point of it all? We have much work to do.