Tech4Africa 2011 Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa

During my recent visit to South Africa, I was fortunate enough to attend the Tech4Africa conference.  This conference was immaculately organised and put together and it was fantastic to gain a sense of the huge buzz that technology is creating there.

Highlights included Simone Brunozzi from Amazon Web Services, who spoke about some of the barriers (including expensive bandwidth, a shortage of developers and a lack of locally relevant content) and advantages (creativity and generosity, massive growth of tech market) to tech innovation in South Africa and across the continent.

The Google Africa team showcased some of the work they are doing with the aim of increasing the access, relevance and sustainability of web based services.  They are involved in a wide range of projects including policy work, the utilisation of TV white spaces, Google Apps for education, digitising a wide range of texts including the Nelson Mandela and Tutu Archives, Kenyan Government gazettes and parliamentary Hansards and rare art collections and libraries.  They are mapping unmapped regions such as South Sudan and enabling citizens to contribute.  They’ve also mapped critical resources like water points and public toilets in Korogocho slum in Nairobi. Localised voice searches are being developed in a range of languages and they are hosting an Android developer challenge.

In an attempt to support and grow the tech community, they are hosting an android developer challenge.  They’ve also developed Tech User Groups to solve problems and collaborate and Umbono, which provides seed funding, free space, 1-1 business support, mentorship and partnership to successful applicants.

Gustav Praekelt launched a new platform Ummeli, which was built on the principles of Ubuntu and helps communities create their own employment opportunities on mobile.  This was borne through consulting with the community, who stated that securing jobs is their biggest challenge.  In SA, there is currently 25% unemployment and a mind boggling 51% for youth! He also spoke about the ways that technology can be utilised to engage hard to reach communities, achieve scalability of social solutions and encourage positive behaviour change.

Jon Gosier showcased the wide ranging applications of Ushahidi and told the story of how it was born out of a 72 hour codeathon and few predicted its rapid success.  He also highlighted the trends that promise to be the most disruptive in the future.

On the second to last evening, Samsung Apps Ignite contestants showcased their ideas to a panel of judges.  Entries included Snap Bill, an automated billing system that allows you to see you services online; Plot my Ride, which is a social networking service for the cycling community offering easy and real time means of capturing and displaying and saving a cyclists riding activity and sharing this activity with other cyclists, friends and family; Feedback Rocket, which enables you to obtain useful insight and honest feedback online, used for HR purposes, particularly 360 degree reviews and generally trying to get better understanding from staff; I Sign, which enables safe secure legally binding online signatures; Mobi Flock, which provides a range of mobile safety and security services controlled by parents such as  smart phone tracker and a corporate smart phone manager; Real time wine which allows you to do wine reviews for the people by the people and empowers them to discover, review and engage with and buy wine using smart phone apps, gain mechanics and barcode scanning. Real Time Wine came first place, followed by Plot my Ride.

I was disappointed that the event didn’t focus more on the role of technology in stimulating social change.  Nonetheless, the event was extremely inspiring and helped me gauge the pulse of the technology sector in South Africa and beyond.