So on a Friday afternoon, as I do on most Fridays, I caught up with another tech founder over coffee in Johannesburg.
This time it was a great mind in tech and Pan Africanist, Mbekezeli "Mbe" Khumalo. He with his partner, Gabriel Eisenberg, were the winners of MIT's Global Startup Labs when it came to Johannesburg with the business they came up with, Philani.
PhilaniSA is a medical self diagnosis tool for South Africa's mining workers using USSD.
I could go on about what great things he is working on and how I think him and his company will go on to make an impact and money but that's a story for another day.
It is when Mbe was sipping on his cappuccino which he takes with sugar (which looked somewhat like me once he got past the foam - and yes, I am sweet) and I was sipping on my Americano (which looked quite like Mbe considering I don't take it with milk nor sugar) that he really got at me. You see, Mbe did the unthinkable, he somehow managed to convince me that Cape Town is better positioned in South Africa as the technology capital or better still, as the "Silicon Valley" of South Africa.
How did Mbe convince me of this?
Especially more so that I have staunchly believed Johannesburg to be the tech powerhouse and not just the economic powerhouse as per my echoing and re-sharing of James Coetzee's Facebook message?
A Quick History Of San Francisco And New York
First Mbe took me on a journey of San Francisco's development into what we now know as Silicon Valley (thanks to the semiconductor companies that started out there) and also through New York's journey into becoming an economic powerhouse as soon as Wall Street happened. New York had tech talent, just like present day Johannesburg, likely even more than San Francisco (read Cape Town) in quantity and quality ;-), but thanks to Wall Street and the success of non-tech companies, they all seemed to somehow swallowall the good tech talent and afford to pay them top dollar. Which is quite similar to what is happening in Johannesburg.
Not just Johannesburg's development into an economic powerhouse but also how all sorts of big companies from health care, financial services, system integrators etc. in Johannesburg have swallowed up a lot of tech talent, in the thousands, especially black tech talent. This leaves, as Mbe explained and I nodded, very few tech people to pursue ideas as startups as they could easily get good paying jobs.
(So, great I think, I can see the similarities between New York and Johannesburg.)
Then onto San Francisco, present day that is, where Mbe explained how thanks to not being an economic powerhouse, like New York, this left San Francisco to attract various types of people who, also given the somewhat creative environment, could mingle and have time to explore various ideas without much pressure (and given the good appetite for risk VCs in Silicon Valley seem to have too).
Now again, I thought, this sounds like Cape Town. Laid back, no rush, some psychology major bumps into a developer at some craft beer x gourmet burger joint (over a joint perhaps?) and they come up with a business (startup) idea. No pressure, it fails, it succeeds, doesn't matter.
Now, Mbe is staring down the bottom of an empty take away cappuccino cup that still looks somewhat like me (less the sweetness) and I'm staring down the bottom of an empty porcelain cup that now had me thinking it looks like Cape Town's tech ecosystem, if not Cape Town in general. Tweet
CHECK! (Chess) (I'm thinking to myself. Mbe wins. Cape Town is very much like San Francisco.)
Now, Mbe is staring down the bottom of an empty take away cappuccino cup that still looks somewhat like me (less the sweetness) and I'm staring down the bottom of an empty porcelain cup that now had me thinking it looks like Cape Town's tech ecosystem, if not Cape Town in general.
I don't have time to discuss this further with Mbe, he has to go to his next appointment and I have to rush to mine which I am now running late for.
But the thought still lingers in my mind. Yes, Cape Town has these events where non-tech and tech people can meet and come up with great ideas or just mingle. Yes, the VCs around Table Mountain seem to have a good appetite (compared to Johannesburg) for tech based investments. On the surface, Cape Town also seems to have more "available" tech talent compared to Johannesburg's which seems mostly to be tied up in corporate employment or consulting to corporates but that's somewhat where the similarities with Cape Town end.
Thing with Cape Town's tech ecosystem is that (from my observations and chats), without beating around the bush, it is male and white.
For this reason, I walked away thinking I need to meet with Mbe again for coffee, and this time, I will be demanding my Americano be served in a black cup.