In conversation with Stafford Masie, South African Serial Tech Entrepreneur
LoA recently had the opportunity to sit down with Stafford and hear his views on the need for inventive entrepreneurs....
Whenever I talk about entrepreneurship, I like to take a step back. What is entrepreneurship? After all, there are multiple types of entrepreneurs. There are innovative entrepreneurs, and there are inventive entrepreneurs. Innovation and invention are very similar but there is a dichotomy between them. An innovative entrepreneur is someone that takes what is already there and optimizes it to create an opportunity. An innovative entrepreneur may go and build an apps company to leverage for example opportunities through the Apple apps store. That is an interesting approach to entrepreneurship and there is quite a bit of this going on in South Africa for example. However, innovative entrepreneurship does not lead to fundamental change, whereas inventive entrepreneurship does. Inventive entrepreneurship is about making things, not consuming them. In Africa, we have traditionally had a culture of consumption of technology, not of making our own technology. If you go to the United States, conversations are very different, particularly amongst young people who are tech savvy – here in Africa, we talk about how we consume technology, how we use apps for example, whereas similar conversations in the US focus on how they are inventing apps, creating new ways of using technology. I wish we had more of that approach here in Africa because I think we need more inventive entrepreneurs on the continent.
Inventive entrepreneurs are the maniacs, the mavericks - inventors are those who create something with no reference point, with no previous best practice, there is nothing to work from – all they have is their passion, their belief, their calling. When you speak to inventive entrepreneurs, they are not ordinarily businesspeople - they are engaged in making stuff. People often see entrepreneurs as glamorous, yet many do not actually see the hard work and sacrifice that it takes to be an entrepreneur behind the scenes. I think we need to define entrepreneurship much more carefully, looking at the two sub-sets of inventive entrepreneurs and innovative entrepreneurs, particularly when we look at Africa from an entrepreneur culture perspective. In Africa, we need people that are inventive, that are makers of things, because the opportunity to bridge gaps, to do something that has a socio economic benefit, to develop something new in healthcare, is critical. For example, someone built a small, simple application for women in the Congo that made a huge difference to their entrepreneurial lives. The story goes, there was a group of women sitting next to a river in the Congo and they would fish in the morning, and by lunchtime they would take their produce to the market where they would sell it. The weather there is hot and humid and the fish deteriorates – as a result, they make a small return on their sales. A little kid sees this situation and writes a mobile application that works on a mobile phone and provides a better solution - instead of the women taking themselves and their produce from the river to the market each day, they now have intermediaries who SMS them to give them orders for their produce. The women leave the fish that they catch in nets in the river and their produce is collected from the intermediaries direct from the source, fresh for consumption. There is a lot of this type of inventive entrepreneurship happening in Africa that sees a human need, develops a small, simple solution, and in the process positively changes lives. It is not the next Facebook or Skype being developed, yet it still makes a human and socio-economic difference in this part of the world.
When it comes to building an entrepreneurship culture, we look at the root problem and challenges here in Africa, particularly in places such as South Africa, and we have an education system that is basically a risk mitigation system that teaches you to avoid it. What we need to do particularly as an IT community in Africa, which to date we haven’t done well enough, is approach leadership in the public sector to truly articulate in a manner that they understand what the opportunity is associated with entrepreneurship relative to technology and what the political capital is. We haven’t been good at discussing why we don’t have an effective framework for entrepreneurship to exist on the African continent and that is why entrepreneurship here flourishes in its miniscule form, and then gets picked up and taken to the United States where it can grow. It happens all the time. Being in Africa and being an entrepreneur is tough, because governmental leadership doesn’t understand it, and that is probably because as an IT sector, we haven’t managed to explain it to the public sector in the most effective way. We need to look at issues such as effective tax structures, protection of intellectual copyright to an international standard that is respected globally, all little yet vital elements that allow an entrepreneurship culture to exist and thrive. Venture capitalists look for a combination of skills, intellectual property protection structures, and effective trade bridges, and these things can only exist when government understands and supports entrepreneurship properly. It starts with us, as entrepreneurs, explaining to government what is needed for the sector to thrive in Africa. They don’t yet understand the range of opportunities that go hand in hand with entrepreneurship and we need to do more to bridge this gap. Yet, I believe that government is the foundation stone of all entrepreneurialism in the country and on the continent. Its role is not to innovate, its role is to create fertile ground for all innovation to thrive. So, what I see happening in Africa from this perspective makes me feel optimistic for its future.
About Stafford Masie
Stafford Masie is a highly successful serial tech entrepreneur and angel investor, with a long-standing and distinguished career background in the global and South African ICT industry. Today, he is the CEO and founder of thumbzup, a new technology company in South Africa. A former Country Manager GM for Google SA, and MD for Novell SA, and with a considerable amount of executive experience working for Novell Inc in the USA as a Global Corporate Technology and Global Business Strategist, his previous background was also gained working as a National Software Strategist for Dimension Data and Technology Analyst at Telkom SA.