‘SmartMonkeyTV captures the energy at the crossroads between technology and culture’


While following different blogs and feeds from across the African continent we read about many great initiatives and startups. But who are the actual people behind those stories? Russell Southwood, CEO of Balancing Act – a consultancy and research company focused on telecoms, internet and broadcast in Africa – meets many of these people during his travels. Last year he decided to launch an online video-platform where you can see his current 350+ conversations. VC4Africa is hereby announcing a content partnership with SmartMonkeyTV and we spoke to Russell to find out more.

What is SmartMonkeyTV?

SmartMonkey TV is Balancing Act‘s new web TV channel on YouTube. We believe that video will become an extremely powerful and widely used medium in Africa, particularly on mobile phones. As data gets cheaper for users – the pressing story of the last ten years, about needing infrastructure on the continent – this turns into a series of different rivers which include an explosion of online content and services. I’m interested in the startups that will provide this content and services – as well as the potential for using technology both as powerful means of cultural expression and to help with social problems like traffic in cities. There is a crossroads somewhere between technology and culture that contains a terrific energy on the continent and we hope to capture some of that spirit.”

How did you get the idea for this platform?

“When the Internet started, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about and I had pretty similar feelings about social media in the early days. But I know from past experience that the only way to make sense of things is to find a way of doing them. So Balancing Act ran a YouTube channel and we discovered that some of the topics we covered got tens of views whereas others – like African film – got tens of thousands of views. I took first a Cisco Flip Mano camera and later a Sony Blogger camera on my travels and shot video clip interviews of widely varying degrees of quality.

A year ago I decided very quietly to create the web TV channel ‘SmartMonkey TV’ (with accompanying e-letter output) to try and find a hybrid medium that would be somewhere between a small magazine and a specialist TV channel. I set myself very few boundaries in terms of who I interviewed as I wanted to see what topics and people I found interesting and to improve the practical presentation of what was produced.

So after a year, I’ve chosen a series of area to focus that are both cultural (African film, TV, music and authors) and technological (start-ups, content platforms, social media and digital advertising). It will be about 80-90% stuff directly from or related to Africa but with a pinch of spice from other parts of the world. Things I found interesting when thinking about what’s happening in Africa.”

What are the main trends you are seeing when you think of the African startups you interviewed recently?

“It’s impossible to generalise about startups on the continent. It’s easier to talk about the types of people who get involved in them. Outside South Africa, there are a lot developers who start from knowing aspects of technology. These are not always the kind of people who start out knowing how to run a business. Then there are the “hustler”-style entrepreneurs who focus on something that seems like “the next big thing” and sometimes they make it or sometimes the pot of gold at the end of rainbow is illusory. Donor funding for ICT4D projects both motivates a lot of people but also casts a long shadow. There are just too many projects out there that don’t meet the needs of their users.

There are two types of innovation on the continent: copying what hasn’t yet happened in Africa and doing something genuinely different that no-one else has done or not done it in quite the same way. There’s still too much of the former and not enough of the latter. It’s why SmartMonkey TV will also interview startups and incubator people outside the continent: innovation of any kind requires a rich soup of ideas.”

 What are you plans with the platform?

“In the first instance, it will just be an additional strand of coverage but as the number of users and views increases we’ll look and see how we can do the kinds of things that have helped earn us an income.”

What are, for VC4Africa members, the four most interesting interviews on SmartMonkeyTV you did so far?

“Kenyan Kahenya Kimunyu has a turned a simple and cheap piece of technology (the Raspberry Pi) into a low-cost household streaming device and I’m intrigued to see whether when he launches this autumn he will be able to turn this into a business success.”

“Nigerian Chike Maduegbuna has launched a mobile media for Nollywood films and is using a short film competition to create content that fits the current market. He’s got interesting user numbers and who knows where it will go.”

“A couple of start-ups from outside the continent to illustrate why it’s useful to cast the net a little wider when trying to enrich the soup of ideas. Martin Kallstrom, Memoto has a lapel camera that can take pictures every 30 seconds throughout your day. It’s a crazy idea but someone will pick it up and find something useful to do with it.”

“Balasundaram Lavan, from Pace4Life, is recycling pacemakers from people who’ve died. He’s both getting them reconditioned and getting them put back into people who are in countries who can’t afford them. One of the first recipients will be in Ghana. The whole idea makes me feel faintly nauseous as I think about it but it’s also such a good thing to do. He’s also recycling the materials from the pacemakers that can’t be used again.”

Thanks for the insights Russell! We will re-publish a selection of your interesting conversations on the VC4Africa website in the near future!