In recent weeks, I’ve been fortunate to meet a range of really smart South African entrepreneurs who are doing incredibly exciting stuff in the technology space, often with relatively few resources.
Despite all the doom and gloom that is our politics, and despite the poor state of our education system, there are pockets of genius shining through everywhere, showing that South Africa can still compete with the best in the world.
Two-year-old Durban-based start-up Emerge Mobile is a great example. The company, founded by father and son team Clive and Matt Putman, along with Matt’s friend Ramsay Daly (the two attended Hilton College in KwaZulu-Natal together) have developed a mobile point-of-sale terminal that allows merchants — tradesmen, for example — to accept card payments using their smartphones.
Matt Putman and Daly admired what US start-up Square, founded by Jack Dorsey, had done in the field and contacted the company wanting to represent it as its agent in South Africa. When they were told that Square had no immediate plans to expand in Africa, the pair, together with Clive Putman — the technical brains behind the venture — set about building their own solution.
Clive, a successful IT industry figure in Durban who had all but retired when he was roped into the venture, has a strong background in cryptography and hardware development, which was key to Emerge Mobile. “Clive looked at it and said he could do it. All we had to do was learn about the rest of the payments industry,” says Daly, only half joking.
With funding from Capital Eye Investments — a private equity business that emerged from the UCS Group — the young start-up, having built a prototype, went through the rigorous and complex process of achieving the necessary international technical accreditations. This was no mean feat.
But Matt says it’s tough as a small South African start-up. Unlike Silicon Valley, there isn’t much venture capital cash to be had, and mentorship is hard to come by.
What’s next for Emerge Mobile? It has white-labelled its product and is talking to banks in Africa, with plans to expand to other emerging markets in time. And in the coming months it intends offering its own branded retail solution in the South African market.
Remarkably, Emerge Mobile isn’t the only company developing a smartphone payments platform like this. Well-known technology entrepreneur Stafford Masie is also developing a solution, through his company Thumbzup, which should be launched in South Africa soon through partner bank Absa.
Indeed, South Africa has a rich history of innovation in technology around financial services. Stellenbosch-based Entersekt is doing incredibly geeky stuff in banking and payments security and is increasingly being noticed on the world stage. And let’s not forget Fundamo, the Cape Town-based mobile payments company founded by former Sanlam Group chief information officer Hannes van Rensburg that was snapped up by Visa in 2011 in a blockbuster $110m all-cash deal.
South Africans’ ingenuity in technology is not limited to financial services, either.
Take Thabo Lehlokoe, founder of Midrand-based Seemahale Telecoms. He is on the verge of debuting the first South African-manufactured smartphones and tablets. The company, which will build the devices at a factory in Boksburg, plans to offer two smartphone models along with two tablets this year. The first products should go on sale within months.
Seemahale is importing the printed circuit boards it will use to make the devices, but placement of all the components, the housing assembly, the manufacture of cables and accessories, and the printing of manuals and packaging is being done in South Africa.
The smartphones will cost substantially less than high-end devices “without skimping on the specs”, says Lehlokoe, who believes there is a big gap in the market between ultra-low-cost handsets and high-end smartphone models. He says consumers are looking for “decent phones with decent specs but at a much better price”.
Lehlokoe must be commended for dabbling in a highly competitive market dominated by big international brands. But it shows, once again, that South Africans, if they put their minds to it, are capable, against the odds, of competing with the best in the world.
- Duncan McLeod is editor of TechCentral. Find him on Twitter
- This column was first published in the Sunday Times
- Flag image by Nicolas Raymond (CC BY 2.0)