Motive: South Africa at risk of being digitally out-innovated by offshore players
by Jarred Cinman (@jarredcinman) Late last year, Liquid Telecom announced Kenya as the leader in average internet speeds, with the lowest costs on the continent. This is just the latest in the steady erosion of South Africa’s lead over its African cousins in the evolution of its digital landscape.
Innovations such as M-Pesa and Ushahidiare are on the rise in East Africa. And Nigeria has become a hotbed of digital enthusiasm if not, quite, a fully realised seat of technology innovation. Where does this leave SA?
Our country — in digital as well as many other things — finds itself caught in an awkward place between a developed and developing market. This places it at risk of being compared unfavourably to both.
Holds the potential
The digital economy holds the potential for South Africans to make their mark on a global scale. We have the talent, and an infrastructure that is considered exceptional by developing-world standards. We are also fluent in the languages (verbal and code) that are required to interact with the big global economies.
These core requirements are further enhanced by a well-established online publishing and advertising sector that represents a sizeable economy with big brands that need online advertising to market their products. We have a rapidly growing internet population — particularly on mobile — who are becoming increasingly engaged.
So what is standing in our way? Why is our digital industry not winning top honours on the global stage? And why are so many local publishers struggling to create viable businesses?
Also our Achilles’ heel
Ironically, our relative strength, in comparison to the rest of the continent, is also our Achilles’ heel. The affluent sectors of our population identify more with the so-called ‘global north’ than the African continent. They have Macbooks and iPads and Galaxy S5s. They read business books by Californian venture capitalists and work in businesses owned by multinationals.
However, SA’s mass market is far from this ideal. We live in a country with enormous poverty and limited access to the latest technology. The majority of phones are still feature phones. And, even if they weren’t, the cost of data puts sophisticated use of the internet out of the reach of most of the population.
These two contradictory world-views and economic contexts mean that an increasingly plugged-in, switched-on and technologically literate group is trying unsuccessfully to engage with a persistently impoverished and disadvantaged one. Our country in not only divided from a financial perspective, but from a cultural one as well.
Doing a better job
Ironically, companies such as Facebook and Google are arguably doing a better job at reaching our population than SA players. They have understood, from global trial and error, what works and what doesn’t. They can afford to experiment because their pace of feedback is rapid and their data set enormous. For local businesses, operating in one market, this is far harder.
In order to succeed and compete as a significant market in the digital space, we have some choices to make. Do we embrace our desire to be seen as a developed-world player? In which case, we need to rapidly pull up our socks, innovate, create and become more competitive. This also requires that we convince local businesses that our medium can deliver real results.
Beyond our industry, however, we remain in a miserable situation relative to the cost of broadband access. This is a giant cement block tied to our waists as we try and outrun other countries that have seen the importance of reliable, fast connectivity.
To be a true African leader
Alternatively, if we want to be a true African leader, we need to turn our attention to mobile, and focus on those parts of our population and those of our neighbouring countries who are not the digital elite.
We need to devise forms of mobile marketing that are irrelevant in the ubiquitous bandwidth countries of Europe and America.
And we need to claim this ground before we are out-innovated in our own backyard by offshore companies.
Jarred Cinman (@jarredcinman) is managing director of Native VML and chairperson of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) of South Africa. The IAB is celebrating the seventh year of its Bookmarks Awards, as well as its inaugural IAB Digital Summit, in association with BBC.com, at Turbine Hall on Thursday, 19 February 2015. As the representative body of the SA digital industry, IAB SA has curated an international line-up of 11 speakers and digital thought-leaders to inspire conversations among attendees that address the pivotal need for the country to develop a globally competitive digital industry. For more, go to http://iabsa.net/summit/home/
“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on MarkLives.com. Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.
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