Cape Town, the gateway to Africa
Interview with Dr. Sumarie Roodt

 

Cape Town and Hamburg:Two cities on two different continents, but with one very special thing in common.Both are home to regional networks that connect and inform businesses on the subject of the digital economy.We at Hamburg@work and the Silicon Cape Initiative have committed ourselves to the goal of promoting digitalization.So what could be more obvious than international cooperation to pool the expertise of both initiatives and create lasting value added?The venture received the go-ahead during the South Africa Festival to mark the 829th Port Anniversary, with the unveiling of the joint cooperation agreement.

We took that opportunity to invite Dr. Sumarie Roodt, Chief Executive of the Silicon Cape Initiative, to call in on us so that we could find out more about the Silicon Cape Initiative and South Africa’s economy:

 

Sumarie, how did you wind up at the Silicon Cape Initiative? Tell us more about your professional career…

Of course! I originally worked in the banking sector for a number of years, which was a wonderful experience for me straight after university, and gave me an opportunity to learn a great deal about how companies operate. It was my first job, I was part of a graduate program and I learned an incredible amount. I then specialized, and my strong interest in high-tech companies prompted me to embark on an MBA in Entrepreneurial Finance and Private Equity. Events took their course and I worked for many years both abroad and in various regions of South Africa. When I returned to Cape Town, I took a job at the university. Because I held a lectureship in the areas of Technology and Technology Entrepreneurship, a position within the initiative fell to me where I was responsible for the students and careers portfolio. At that time Silicon Cape was run exclusively by volunteers. In other words, there was a members’ panel and people got involved voluntarily. After working in a wide range of positions, I was then elected Chair.

What makes the Silicon Cape Initiative special and what does your work mean for the Western Cape Region?

The main aim of the Silicon Cape Initiative is to turn Cape Town and the Western Cape Region into an international innovation and start-up hub. We also provide non-financial resources for our 10,000 members and 500 member companies. But the focus is of course on networking! One area in which both our initiatives are very similar. I think our job is to connect people and businesses. If a young entrepreneur wants to establish a start-up but for instance doesn’t know how to write a business plan or is lacking investment, they can turn to us. We try to put them in touch with the right people.

Can you tell us a little about the type of projects you deal with, and which ones are particularly successful?

There are just so many! Cape Town was recently voted the Number One start-up hub among emerging markets. One project that I am especially proud of and would describe as my favorite project is our promotion of women in STEM subjects, in other words science, technology, engineering and maths. We have a portfolio manager covering that specific area, who addresses the promotion of women and female entrepreneurs in the Western Cape Region. On top of that, we hold major tech tours for companies and interested parties from abroad who want to gain an insight into the start-up community in Cape Town. Those are just two examples of many.

The promotion of women is a significant issue here at Hamburg@work, too. Through our Women’s Club we for instance bring together women who are movers and shakers in the digital and media industry – for knowledge-sharing and to generate fresh impetus. I would now like to talk about our exciting collaboration. We have signed a joint agreement – what do you expect from it?

Plenty of great projects! I’d like to see increased economic exchanges – not just between the cities Hamburg and Cape Town, but also between the Hamburg metropolitan region and the Western Cape. On the back of that, longer term we would of course also like to see the establishment of German technology start-ups in Cape Town and the Western Cape Region, as well as South African start-ups in Germany and ultimately the EU.

By joining forces, we can really get started and set up new ventures – provide the impetus for economic exchanges. Can you tell us more about the economy of the Western Cape Region? What challenges do you identify in that area at present?

Unemployment in South Africa is currently running at 27.56%. Although we have the lowest unemployment rate of all regions in the Western Cape, the level is still far too high. Cape Town has 4.1 million inhabitants, and of those 4.1 million 60% are under 35 years old. That means in turn that a very large number of young people are unemployed. That is a huge challenge! In addition, South Africa is currently suffering from a serious drought. That topic has also been covered in the German media. The drought is definitely causing us huge problems because many investors who come to South Africa decide not to locate there for that reason. Those two matters are the big challenges as I see it: high unemployment and the water crisis. There are also political issues such as the privatization of disputed land, but that does not have a particularly big impact on our work.

You have just mentioned unemployment and young people. Do you believe Cape Town is a good place to establish a start-up?

Absolutely! Start-ups are precisely what we are about. In Cape Town, we have more coworking spaces than anywhere else in South Africa. We have a large number of accelerators and incubators. Young people are our main target group, because they encapsulate two relevant aspects: On the one hand our focus on technology, and on the other hand the technical affinity of the millennials generation.

Do you think it is easier to launch a start-up in the Western Cape Region than in Europe?

That’s a good question. However great it all sounds, you should not lose sight of reality. A number of barriers need to be overcome if you are not from South Africa and would like to start your own business. If you don’t yet know anybody locally, it can be difficult to find the right people. But I hope that is precisely where we come in and can provide start-up assistance in the form of the right framework conditions. I think we are already doing a good job in that area, but there is a lot more that we can learn from Hamburg@work.

Digital transformation is such a buzz word. What does it mean for you and what does it mean for Africa?

I believe the digital transformation comprises two key concepts: accessibility and connectivity. Especially in Africa, we have had major problems with both. According to various forecasts, Africa could become one of the best-connected continents on the planet. The potential for exploiting and shaping the digital transformation and related factors such as mobility, logistics, social and government services – you can witness that happening live in Africa.

It also helps that Cape Town ranks as the genuine hub of the entire continent. So if you want to access the African market ...

… we are the right people to talk to! Cape Town is perceived by businesses, investors and start-ups as the gateway to Africa. And we support business settlement locally.

Which in turn chimes well with Hamburg’s description of itself as “Gateway to the World”. The final question now concerns the first joint event that we are planning. We would like to arrange a learning journey to South Africa and visit the Silicon Cape to gain an insight into your work. What can our members expect from this trip?

I can already divulge a few details. One exciting and really interesting development that everyone is talking about at the moment and merits further discussion is the township economy. Your members will find it very interesting to witness and understand this work in the townships. Members of Hamburg@work will also have the opportunity to see and experience Cape town before the city grows into one of the megacities of the future. According to forecasts there will be 15 megacities in Africa by 2030, and Cape Town will be one of them. At the same time the participants will have the unique opportunity to get to know the entire continent in one city. Because Cape Town is a veritable melting pot of people from all over Africa. And finally, when there you will have a chance to see what the digital transformation can achieve on a continent such as Africa. Cape Town is just the start!