By Will Green, CEO of Co.Lab

I was fortunate enough to attend and speak at this year’s Africa Tech Week that was held in Cape Town on the 4th and 5th of March.

Before my speech, I polled the audience to find out if they participated in big business, government, SME or micro-enterprises. I was pleasantly surprised to find that 35% of the audience was represented by both local and provincial government. Over the past 19 years as a technology businessman and entrepreneur, who has attended hundreds of conferences, I have never experienced an African technology conference with such a high level of government involvement.

At Africa Tech Week I was fortunate to be sitting next to a very accomplished engineer and Chief Director in charge of Technology Localisation and Advanced Manufacturing at the Department of Science and Technology. I found it fascinating to discover the projects that he was working on in the mining and medical fields. These involved 3D printing of titanium bones for reconstructive surgery for cancer patients who have lost their face, but who have had their lives restored thanks to this innovative manufacturing process. The story of this innovation needs to be told and shared.

One of the reasons startup entrepreneurs don’t interact with government departments when starting out, is because their main priority is to generate cash flow. Initially they start with a friendly corporate incumbent agreeing to run a ‘proof of value’ project. This is followed by other paid projects for companies in industries with which they are familiar. At this stage they don’t — but should — consider the public sector as a potential customer. We should welcome and encourage government’s involvement in entrepreneurship and technology startups.

Government also needs to be more aware of the opportunities that technology provides to stimulate growth in South Africa. Technology is an enabler. It can assist the future inventions and entrepreneurial aspirations of young South Africans in the universities, in the schools and on the streets of Tembisa, Langa, Michell’s Plain and Mamelodi.

When Jack Ma, Founder and CEO of the world’s largest retail company, the Alibaba Group, was in Johannesburg in August 2018 to launch his $10m African Netpreneur fund, he said: “Only African entrepreneurs will solve African challenges. The best way to create jobs is to support small businesses. The best way to create jobs is to encourage young people. Startups just need an open environment and trust to create jobs. Degrees from schools like Harvard and MIT, those are white-collar guys they will never be entrepreneurs.”

Conferences like Africa Tech Week play an important role in making people in business and government more aware of the benefit of working together to harness technology to develop economic growth and to assist young South African entrepreneurs to develop successful businesses.