Tech4Africa launches Innovation Award

Tech4Africa, an emerging technology conference, is calling for entries to its inaugural Tech4Africa Innovation Award. Designed to recognize homegrown innovation and further inspire the industry to develop global solutions to uniquely African challenges, this prestigious award is open to individuals and companies alike.

The 2011 Tech4Africa Conference follows last year’s successful launch of the event, which attracted more than 500 developers, marketers, innovators and business executives. Some of the industry’s leading minds gathered for two days to participate in presentations by and discussions with international speakers on the state of web and emerging technology on the continent. The 2011 Tech4Africa Conference will be hosted at The Forum in Bryanston, Johannesburg from 27 to 28 October.

VC4Africa recently had a chance to catch up with Gareth Knight, the Founder of Tech4Africa, and get his take on entrepreneurship, African tech and this year’s upcoming event.

Why was Tech4Africa started?

I wanted to give people in Africa the opportunity to interact with world class speakers and practitioners, close the gap with the US and Europe, and help create an environment that I could find myself working in.

How do you compare Tech4Africa to other Africa tech focused events?

I haven’t attended many African technology events, so I can’t comment without bias. At first thought, I’d say that from looking at the other events from afar, how they position themselves and the speakers they get, Tech4Africa is more about substance and actually doing stuff, than talking the talk and getting government contracts. We’re actively trying not to foster the African fishbowl but rather trying to push the notion that Africans can build products for the global markets. We’re trying to embrace the global market, without losing a sense of identity. I think we’re also better run on the day, less formal, and yet still more professional (and that’s based on speaker comments, from speakers who have spoken all over the world).

What were the most inspiring/promising stories from last year’s event?

Definitely mPedigree, Ushahidi, the African mesh potato, and folks like Fritz Ekogwe and Leilah Janah. It was also amazing to see the traction local startups achieved with Seedcamp, a European micro seed fund that invests in early stage startup companies. This opportunity lead to Cognician, a South African tech startup, having been selected as one of TechCrunch’s Best New Startup’s 2010.

Which entrepreneurs are coming to this year’s event and why are they so interesting?

It’s still a bit early to say much about this years startups as most of them are trying for the IGNITE award, and I don’t want to jinx the process / give anything away too early. What’s promising is that there are folks building solutions to solve both African and global problems, which is awesome.

What do you see as the biggest challenge to getting more tech entrepreneurship on the continent?

More experienced folks sharing their knowledge with less experienced folks, more early stage risk capital to fund the truly disruptive startups that we all know are out there. Culturally, I’d like to see a positive shift to risk taking and failure. I think the support structures that have developed are great, but we need more of them.

Can you give an insight into the investing scene and how you see the role of angels and VCs?

That’s a tough one.  The primary problem I see is that the early exit for angels is not as prevalent as it is in other countries. That means they can’t recycle their cash as much, and means they have to be more circumspect with the deals they do. From speaking to the VC’s, it also seems that for every 300 opportunities they see, there are very few which are investable. So I think the scene is broken from both ends. There is plenty of cash out there, and plenty of people looking for opportunities, but to see a deal through with so many factors having to fall into place, it’s no wonder that people perceive it as being tough.

I think the bottom line is that there are folks out there, so for the entrepreneur the task is to pitch investable opportunities, and to network like mad to find the right people that can help. There are no silver bullets ;-(

What are the startups we should be watching?

I’m not up to speed on *all the African startups * so can only comment on what I’ve seen so far. Motribe, Powertime, The Praekelt Foundation all come to mind, mainly because they’re showing great traction.

Any major highlights we should mention for this year’s event?

Yes – many more African speakers ;-) The talks are more intimate, with the focus on imparting knowledge. There is the Innovation Award, the Trade Show and of course IGNITE.

How do you look at VC4A Africa and what role do you think VC4A should play?

A catalytic role.  Bringing the right opportunities together with the right investors, and then showing everyone what success looks like.

Final thoughts, message for the VC4A community?

Be passionate about the right things. Look for investable ideas, as not all ideas are scalable. Share your passion with everyone. Be persistent. I’ll leave you with my favourite quote at the moment: “Entrepreneurship is living your life for a few years like other people won’t, so you can live the rest of your life like others can’t.” – Anon.

Entries for the Tech4Africa Innovation Award close on 12 September, following which a list of 10 finalists will be drawn up. The winner will be announced at an award ceremony to be held the night of 26 October as a curtain raiser for the two-day conference that starts the following day. The judging panel will consist of industry experts, community members and conference partners. Registration for the conference is open, with full details on their website.