SA startup selected as TechCrunch ‘Best New Startup’

The TechCruch Europas, the European Startup Awards for tech companies, has listed Cognician as one of the top 11 Best New Startup’s in 2010. The company is a South African technology startup founded by Patrick Kayton, who was a speaker at Tech4Africa 2010.

The Europas serve to honour the best technology companies and startups across the web and mobile space. The awards span 22 categories and recognise and celebrate the most compelling technology startups, Internet and mobile innovations of the past year.

Cognican, the original thought processor that presents content in the form of provocative questions, helping users to apply the author’s ideas to their own tasks, so that they can think better, further and faster, was selected through a process done by referencing TechCrunch’s database of tech companies on CrunchBase. This was followed by a month of online public voting that saw 33,126 votes being cast across all categories. The final award winners will be determined based both on popular votes received through website voting along with the results submitted by The Europas Advisory Board.

The award winners will be revealed at The Europas event which will be held in London this Friday, November 19. The evening will be attended by over 350 people from the cream of Europe’s startups, VCs and entrepreneurs along with industry leaders of the the tech startup and investor scene who will be presenting the awards to the winners.

Says Patrick Kayton, co-founder and COO of Cognician “We’re thrilled to be recognised through The Europas and we wish to send out a big thank you to everyone who voted for us. It is especially rewarding as the Europas finalists are determined by the tech community who were invited to have their say in which startups should be recognised. It’s quite remarkable that we’re there at all actually, as little or no votes would have been cast by our local network.

“Cognician has made great strides in 2010 with limited resources and see being nominated in the final 11 as testament to both the quality of Cognician and the work that our small team has put in,” adds Kayton.

“Prior to it’s soft launch in September Cognicain has won the Cape Town Activa competition in the Ideas Track. Later, we were selected as one of Africa’s top three startups at Seedcamp Week Johannesburg and we were finalists at Seedcamp Week in London.

Kayton explains that Cognician is currently making 70 original cogs for two leading corporate clients in The Allan Gray Orbis Foundation and Old Mutual. “Furthermore we’ve signed publishing deals with the UK-based publishers, Profile Books and Infinite Ideas which will enable Cognician to produce further cogs.

“To now be recognised as a finalist in The Europa Awards is the cherry on the top of 2010,” concludes Kayton.

The entrepreneur, an agent of change in the emerging markets?

The first edition of Tech4Africa last August proved to be one of the largest gatherings in Africa of international and local bright technologists, business people and entrepreneurs. One in that bunch was Bright Simons, the founder of mPedrigree.com, who sat on the panel “Mobile content for grownups, being clever with the simple”.

Simons, a young Ghanaian, embodies the figure of the entrepreneur of the emerging markets, as The Economist labelled him in its recent article “The other demographic dividend”. According to the influential magazine, this kind
of entrepreneur has an impressive ability to identify gaps in markets. This is something Simons has shown to have had. His development, mPedrigree, came up with an innovative solution for dealing with the epidemic of counterfeit drugs using the mobile phone. The service helps people to ensure that the medicines they are buying are legitimate and safe.

In his interview “Bright hope for continental scourge” for ITWeb, Simons recognizes that “I felt I could do something more than just write about the issue”. A massive tragedy in Nigeria related to fake drugs that killed 90 children and the daunting statistics about Africa’s plague of counterfeit drugs prompted him into action. From the drugs that find their way onto the market, 30% are illegitimate. And according to the UN, at least half of the anti-malaria tablets that are sold in Africa are counterfeit, meaning a business of about $438 million a year. Simons added that: “A 2001 Interpol research conducted in Lagos, Nigeria showed that 80% of all the medicines on sale were counterfeit.”

With his endeavour to transform lives, he bootstrapped the mPedigree system, which is very accessible and easy to use. Manufacturers place an unique code on the medicine label, which the consumers have to SMS to see whether the medicine is safe. Consumers are responded to with a simple “yes” or “no”, assuring whether the medicine is good for consumption or not. This is in effect a great consumer experience, simple and easy, but it wasn’t that way for Simons to implement it. In the interesting article Innovative Mobile Phone Strategies in the Developing World, Simons stressed that “when you develop new technologies, you are not trying to change the consumer; you are trying to change the manufacturer to serve the consumer”.

The raising figure of the entrepreneur in the emerging markets as an agent of change is backed up by academic research, as the article in The Economist points out. Demographers have often noted that most of the emerging world will stay young while the rich world ages. Among other benefits brought by this factor, this will be favourable due to the boost of a more entrepreneurial business culture. This is being reinforced by two big changes in the emerging world:

1- The information-technology revolution: Many consumers in emerging markets are much more likely to access the Internet via mobile devices rather than PCs. “That gives local entrepreneurs an advantage”, says Rob Salkowitz, the author of “Young World Rising”, meaning that Africans can build companies around coming technology, while their Western peers first have to transform old systems and mindsets to do it.

2- Pro-entrepreneurial revolution: Global institutions such as the World Bank and the World Economic Forum as well as several big companies have helped to popularise entrepreneurialism.

These facts may show that Bright Simons, as many other successful African social entrepreneurs, could be in fact representatives of a new leadership scenario in the emerging markets, which drives change and promotes transparency by connecting people and organizations via communications technologies. If this is true for the whole of Africa, it has to be proved, but cases like Simons’ clearly show that technology and entrepreneurship can be a solution to fight some of the toughest plagues that hit the continent: political and economic inefficiencies.

Do you think entrepreneurialism could be an agent of change for Africa?

Tech4Africa: The PanAfrican Perspective

“Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” ~ African Proverb

That proverb has been used to sum up the continent’s state (or fate) for a long time. And what’s become more apparent is that in some cases, you need to point out which Africa you are referring to, South Africa or the rest of Africa. Given that we’re now seeing the kind of innovative web & technology startups coming from Nigeria and Kenya, the Tech4Africa conference put a lot into perspective.

South Africa has always been one of the main doors into the continent. A leading economy no doubt with a vibrant entrepreneurial space with the likes of Naspers showing how powerful an emerging market this is. However, even as the crown jewel of the continent, with we’re beginning to see a balance play out with the South, East & West shifting as each develops not on a linear path, one after the other, but each on its own tangent, converging and diverging with time.

Take Kenya for instance, who recently trumped South Africa in broadband thanks to services like Wananchi Online & Cisco’s Zuku which brings fiber-to-the-home and an uncapped service of 1 MBps as well as 100 television channels. Crisis mapping and visualisation platform Ushahidi was the centre of attention at Tech4Africa, from cofounder Erik Hersman sharing their missteps, challenges and shortfalls in “failing spectacularly.” Even to mentions from Clay Shirky at Tech4Africa and his most recent TED Talk where he shares how it began, and how it fits in with his thoughts on collaboration and cognitive surplus. Or in West Africa, where Bright Simons and mPedigree are changing the pharmaceutical landscape by allowing consumers to verify via SMS the authenticity and safety of their medicines.

Leila Janah, keynote speaker at T4A, spoke about her non-profit Samasource, who’ve created a network of 800 women, youth and refugees across the world in developing countries and empowering them with digital work and resources to make better livelihoods. Her keynote showed the scale, reach and impact of Samasource’s efforts as well as their plans and challenges. It’s certainly clear that East and West Africa are learning from South Africa and now more than ever, the continent’s developing three pillars to build on.

Any pan African approach will present very unique challenges in comparison with what works in South Africa and Tech4Africa’s ability to share between tried and tested practice in the Southern part of Africa, with input from The East and West and an international perspective is what differentiated it for me.

Whether it was debating approaches for the mobile marketing arena shared or the insightful tips and tricks behind the proposed redesign of Payfine.co.za or Andy Budd’s entire session at that. The value in creating simple, relevant user experiences may inadvertently not be at the top of many priority lists across the continent but from what the principles behind it are, what they unlock can be the difference between success and failure. We can expect that with time, these user experience and interaction principles will adapt and be tailored to fit the African context in new ways.

The inspiration and vision to shift perceptions about Africa and those in Africans about the possibilities for great things when it comes to technology are what struck me about Gareth and his remarkable team. Gareth Knight, the man who returned to South Africa bearing the Tech4Africa vision has been the one brave enough to take the first step. And if one African proverb proves true then as Gareth leads this generation to plant the seeds, we’ll wait to how the next generation of Africans use the shade.

It was certainly an honour to witness this beginning.

Mark Kaigwa
http://ukwelii.wordpress.com
@mkaigwa

Take-Aways from Tech4Africa

News from the conference room: this is a series of blog posts in which blogging experts briefly review key Tech4Africa 2010 talks and panels from Day 1 and 2.

By the time we got to the closing remarks at the end of two fantastic days at Tech4Africa, the atmosphere was a mix of exhaustion, inspiration and eagerness to get to the after party and then beyond into the world, to start applying the learning’s and following up with new connections made.

I had already started asking people what their number one take-away from the unconference-conference had been, so was delighted when the panel opened up their closing remarks along the same lines.

Hearing what other attendee’s pick out as their number one take away, is a great way to summarise the key points and highlight any trends from all the information that was imparted.

So here are some of the take-aways that were shared with me and that I picked up from the panel:

Simon Dingle declared that “Tech4Africa has arrived!”

Duncan McCleod is “going to make it a priority to come to next years Tech4Africa”.

Ivo Vegter felt that “our (as in South Africa’s) engineers and developers are at the top of their game”.

Andy Higgins said his take away was “to build small and good, rather than big and mediocre”.

“Only Africans are going to solve African problems. The international context is a great wake up call, but it needs to be applied to the African context by Africans. It’s only a matter of time before Tech4Africa is dominated by the rest of Africa’s start up’s and speakers. The time is now to look forward!” exclaimed Mark Kaigwa from Kenya.

Dustin Diaz was a man of few words, all he could say to me was: “Blown away!”

Whereas Darren Smith was a bit more verbose with his points, being: “T4A take-away: Seedcamp and Tech4Africa was an eye-opener, in as much meeting the local and international innovators brought home just how fast the world is moving, yet how small its boundaries have become (something that Clay Shirky alluded to in his keynote). What it brought home to me though, was the difficulty in bootstrapping a genuine tech start-up in this country. There seems to be a massive gap between the bootstrapped start-up, and genuine VC investment in a BUSINESS. Most of the entrepreneurs I chatted to and listened to during Tech4Africa were long on tech, passion and ideas, but short on business acumen. And in the absence of a degree of working capital, these start-ups simply will never start-up. Its simple economics.

Sadly, I left Tech4Africa with little semblance of sufficient support structures for entrepreneurs other than ‘family and fools’. It seems to me that most so-called boot-strapped business successes in South Africa are actually extensions of established businesses, products/services … and are funded through the working capital of their benefactors. VCs are looking for much bigger investment opportunities than offered locally (they’re looking for global scale, and 60% plus returns). Yet many of the innovations NEED to serve South Africa needs, and if that’s all they do, it doesn’t make them any less valuable.

So, a few mixed feelings. On the one hand, a tremendous fillip for tech innovation in Africa, but again a sobering assessment of our ability to harness the capital needed to put this innovation to work.”

Ashley Shaw summed up his take away as “solutions to challenges and meeting people”.

“I had a take away pizza last night” was what came to Gordon Greeff’s mind when I asked him, while Mongezi Mtati felt ”the conference has raised the bar much higher than before, the perception that innovation originates from somewhere outside Africa no longer holds true. The challenge is to transcend the needs of a select few who know what the web is about, and create applications that change lives.”

Renier Meyer asserted that “Tech4Africa was an awesome experience and all the panel discussions and presentations were very inspiring and made me think differently about lots of things and also made me think about things I’ve never thought of before. One thing that I realised is that we as South Africans and Africans, are different. And we do things a lot differently here than in the rest of the world. How we do things here even differs from how they do it in other African countries, I’m especially thinking about the mobile market. But even though its a lot different it works well for us and there are entrepreneurs that see opportunities to make these things that make us different, better for us.”

Jonathan Smit’s primary reason for going to Tech4Africa was to hear and meet the international speakers who we would normally not have access to. His take away was: “It was fantastic to hear from some of the great Internet minds from around the world and to connect with like minded Africans. The skills necessary to create, run and grow great Internet businesses abound within Africa and the learnings from our international colleagues can be readily applied to our context to achieve great success both locally and internationally.”

Irene Walker had this to say as her sum up: The difference between good and great digital solutions lie in their consideration and implementation of satisfied user needs.”

My take away? I think that there is a lot of innovation in Africa, and the sharing of international best practice mixed with the out of box thinking from Africa which is driven by need, is going to see a lot of exciting new developments originating from Africa.

So what is your take-way?

Share your nugget with us here or tweet it with the hashtag #myT4Atakeaway.

Telana Simpson

http://onematchstick.blogspot.com/

@Telana

Tech4Africa partners with First National Bank and Internet Solutions

FNB, Internet Solutions endorse African technology development through partnership with Tech4Africa

Internet Solutions and First National Bank (FNB) have given their full backing to Tech4Africa, the premier Internet and emerging technology conference, in their role as Foundation Partners and have committed to supporting the long-term development of home-grown technology solutions on the continent.

“From our earliest discussions with FNB and Internet Solutions it was evident that they share our values and vision for the future of Internet and mobile technologies on the continent,” says event organiser Gareth Knight. “The reality is that Africa is playing catch-up in these sectors and that this can only be overcome through collaborating with the best minds in the industry, locally and globally.”

“Both partners bring tremendous value to the conference because of their appreciation for the way in which technology can and should be applied to drive economic prosperity in Africa, and have clearly demonstrated their skills in this sector.”

Knight points to Internet Solutions’ position as a leading provider of Internet infrastructure across the continent. As the trusted partner in IP driven solutions, Internet Solutions enables their clients to be truly competitive in the global economy.

Company MD Derek Wilcocks says Internet Solutions’ participation extends well beyond its support of the conference and providing connectivity to participants over the two days.

“We see the future of the Internet in the way people are able to collaborate. Social media is changing the way organisations work and providing opportunities for governments to interact with their citizens,” he says. “The conference topics are at the heart of the future of our industry and we want to be part of that learning experience and also contribute to that debate.”

“For us, it’s about more than the technology and technical ability, it’s about the impact that we as an organisation can have on people’s lives,” he adds.

Knight says that FNB’s role as an enabler of business and technology ideas is equally important and that the bank’s participation at Tech4Africa will hopefully spur on more home-grown development.

“FNB has demonstrated a strong entrepreneurial edge and willingness to invest in the market through introducing technology-driven solutions such as PayPal and cellphone banking. In short, they are walking the talk, which other institutions are still struggling to achieve,” he says.

FNB Commercial’s head of small business sales, Marcel Klaassen, says FNB is continuously driven by innovation, which is based on a strong entrepreneurial spirit within the division.

“We recognise the role that technology, e-commerce and innovative banking solutions play in the entrepreneurial environment and are proud to facilitate knowledge sharing and international best practice trends in these areas,” he says. “We understand that the most difficult barriers for entrepreneurs to overcome is the lack of support and mentorship and have therefore tailored a business proposition around small businesses that address both their financial and non-financial needs. We look forward to engaging with existing and aspiring technology entrepreneurs.”

Tech4Africa 2010 will be featuring international and local technology visionaries including Clay Shirky, Leila Chirayath Janah, Jonathan Snook, John Resig and many others who will be sharing their knowledge and experiences. The conference is taking place on 12 and 13 August 2010 at The Forum in Bryanston, Johannesburg.

About FNB Commercial

As a company with entrepreneurial spirit at its heart, FNB Commercial is committed to supporting South African entrepreneurs to take advantage of the business opportunities present in our country by offering innovative business banking solutions. This commitment is reflected in our vision to enable, grow and accelerate entrepreneurship in South Africa.

With this over-arching focus on entrepreneurship, FNB Commercial has a suite of ground-breaking business banking products aimed at assisting small business owners with running their businesses more efficiently. To ensure that our clients receive the support they need, we have invested in several innovative platforms that offer convenience, accessibility, cost effectiveness and security.

About Internet Solutions

Internet Solutions is a wholly owned subsidiary of Dimension Data.  The company is Southern Africa’s most established and experienced Internet Service Provider. Since 1993 Internet Solutions has been providing end-to-end connectivity solutions and related services across the African continent. Today IS is a provider of Internet Protocol-based Connectivity, Communications, Cloud and Carrier services in the African market and for African clients into the global market. IS provides services to large public and private sector organisations, medium sized organisations, and through its value channel program to smaller organisations and consumers.

Tech4Africa raises the networking bar with unique approach to speaker-delegate interaction

Tech4Africa, the Web and emerging technology conference, is breaking with convention by placing special emphasis on networking and direct access to some of the industry’s most internationally-recognised names that make up the events speaker line-up.

The main conference, being hosted at The Forum in Bryanston, Johannesburg on 12 and 13 August 2010, brings luminaries such as Clay Shirky, Andy Budd and Dustin Diaz to Africa to address a gathering such as this for the first time.

“There are very few opportunities for the tech community in Africa to interact with like-minded people, never mind experts who’ve developed global brands or who are brands in their own right,” says Gareth Knight, MD of Technovated, the mastermind behind the event.

“Some of the best international events I’ve attended have promoted informal interaction with speakers and between delegates, and have proven to be the most valuable. And we are looking to replicate that at Tech4Africa.”

In addition to networking events in Cape Town and Johannesburg prior to the conference, the Tech4Africa format and structure have been designed to promote casual ‘corridor conversations’ and chance meetings.

A key element to this approach is that name badges will indicate the delegate’s needs or areas of interest, easily linking funders or investors with start-ups, graduates with companies looking to hire and executives looking for solution providers.

“This facilitates broader conversations, which in our view is where the conference’s real value lies,” says Knight. “Delegates are therefore able to quickly identify potential partners, and easily strike up conversations with people they might not otherwise have approached. The name badges create context and are a great ice-breaker.”

He adds that these types of conversations, as well as the interactive nature of stage presentations, go a long way to helping delegates realise that their problems aren’t unique and that many others grapple with similar challenges.

One session designed to address issues of a decidedly technical nature is the Intimate Q&A with Andy Budd, Dustin Diaz, Joe Stump, John Resig and Jonathan Snook during which they will chat about their own personal experiences, particularly their biggest challenges and how they overcame them. A large portion of the session will be dedicated to taking questions from the audience.

“We want delegates to return from the conference feeling that they have gained full value, which these types of interactions are designed to achieve,” says Knight. “I can speak from personal experience that this will be the case, having attended my fair share of international conferences where I’ve had the opportunity to raise my particular challenges with some of the leading minds in the industry.”

About Tech4Africa

Tech4Africa runs from 12-13 August 2010 at The Forum in Bryanston. Workshops will be held on 10-11 August. The event is targeted at business professionals and technologists from businesses of all sizes, from entrepreneurs and start-up owners through to professionals working at large organisations. Clay Shirky – one of the world’s leading thinkers and writers on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies will be the keynote speaker at the inaugural Tech4Africa Conference. Shirky joins a stellar line-up of international speakers – including leaders from organisations such as Twitter, Mozilla, digg and Yahoo! – and African technologists from companies such as PesaPal, Ushahidi, Obami and many more.

From Africa to the world, with love

African technology to compete on a global stage

The landing of a series of undersea cables is going to solve an infrastructural problem that has long plagued Africa and will enable African technology developers to compete on a global stage. In order to properly realise the full potential of a global customer base, African technologists need to not only expose their work to the world, but to also expose themselves to the learnings and insights that the developed world has to offer.

New international submarine communication cables are starting to ring the continent, bringing with them the promise of cheaper broadband across the continent. That means Africa will soon have the infrastructure to be able to compete more effectively in the online space than it did in the past. But Africa has missed out on several years of important learning in this space. Now is the perfect time for African entrepreneurs to embrace business and technical expertise from the rest of the world and close that gap.

An all-too common and incorrect perception in South Africa and other parts of the continent is that African problems are different to those experienced anywhere else in the world, and that they should be addressed with uniquely African solutions. According to this view of the world, international best practices and experiences, especially those from developed countries, are not really applicable to African businesses. That is a misguided and parochial perspective in a world where technology and global trade have shrunk the world to a fraction of its former size.

In high-tech industries, such as Web-focused businesses, there is much that African entrepreneurs, public servants and technicians can learn from international experience. In fact, it’s imperative that African businesses embrace international experience and knowledge if they’re to catch up with what their peers are doing online in the rest of the world.

African challenges

Of course, Africa has infrastructure, political and social challenges that are not present in most parts of the world. Building an online business in an environment where the electricity supply is unreliable and where international bandwidth is slow and expensive is fraught with challenges that don’t exist for an entrepreneur building a business in the heart of Silicon Valley.

But in addition to their superb infrastructure, innovation hubs like the west and east coasts of the USA also offer an unrivaled depth of human capital. Whatever an entrepreneur’s business idea is, there are people around who have the experience and skills to help make it a reality. And of course, the more that experienced people share their skills and knowledge with each other, the more new ideas and concepts they come up with and the more successful they are turning their innovations into commercial products.

By contrast, an African entrepreneur trying to productise a nifty new mobile application or a new online service simply doesn’t have access to many local people who have the skills and experience. There is an abundance of great ideas and enthusiasm but a lack of experience in turning these ideas into commercial products.

There have been a few success stories – innovators such as Mark Shuttleworth, Elon Musk and Vinny Lingham come to mind – but they are exceptions to the rule and their skills are often lost to Africa when their businesses take off. An additional problem that becomes obvious from the above list, is that South Africans dominate the list of obvious success stories while technologists from the rest of Africa do not feature as highly.

Universal lessons

Most of the processes, technology and tools that African entrepreneurs will be using to create Web and mobile products and services will be similar to those used by people in other parts of the world. There are many universal lessons around project management, usability, product development, technology and many other areas that apply anywhere in the world, and they’re ones many American and European pioneers had to learn the hard way. Speccing and configuring a server, designing a good user interface, managing cashflow – these are all things that work the same way anywhere in the world.

So why not learn from international experience? The alternative is to stubbornly waste time and money reinventing the wheel and making the mistakes that others have already made. And that is something that no African entrepreneur can afford to do.

Tech4Africa

The Tech4Africa conference being held in August this year, aims to address the above issues by bringing a number of world famous technologists and African innovators to South Africa to share, teach and interact with Africans looking to make it in the technology space. It’s an exciting time for African technology and the opportunity that Tech4Africa presents is one that really shouldn’t be missed.