Thinking like Silicon Valley can supercharge Africa

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 27 Feb 2023
Andile Ngcaba, chairman and founding partner of Convergence Partners.
Andile Ngcaba, chairman and founding partner of Convergence Partners.

Businessman Andile Ngcaba has called on the African continent to build and nurture tech skills so that it can compete with its global counterparts.

In a wide-ranging interview with ITWeb, Ngcaba − who commutes between Silicon Valley and South Africa − said African countries must address tech skills shortages they can replicate the success story of Silicon Valley.

Ngcaba is chairman, founder and majority shareholder of investment group Convergence Partners, and is also former executive chairman of systems integrator Dimension Data.

Soon after SA transitioned to a democracy, he took up the position of director-general of the Department of Communications for eight-and-a-half years until December 2003.

At the Department of Communications, Ngcaba was responsible for policy formulation that restructured the ICT sector, and he presided over various initiatives to reorganise and overhaul the telecoms sector.

During this time, more than 10 pieces of legislation were produced, including the Convergence Bill, which was subsequently promulgated as the Electronic Communications Act of 2006.

Convergence Partners recently closed its Convergence Partners Digital Infrastructure Fund at $296 million (R5.1 billion), surpassing its initial target by over 18%.

According to the businessman, the funding will largely be used for investments in digital infrastructure, as the firm looks to boost connectivity in Africa.

Wide world, singular focus

During the interview, in Johannesburg, Ngcaba said there is a combination of factors that make Silicon Valley thrive.

“There are great universities whose output in computer sciences or engineering gets into this ecosystem. You have accelerators and incubators which are on steroids in the way they operate, meaning that people come from every part of the world to join these facilities. It’s a cross-pollinating environment.”

On what Africa can learn from Silicon Valley, he said: “My view is that there is a lot that is happening on the continent. We need to uplift talent and expose Africa’s talent to the global tech ecosystems.”

He pointed out that Africa’s talent must not only look for products and solutions only for the African market.

“We need to harness talent on the African continent and take that talent global. By that, I don’t mean lifting people and take them to, for example, Europe or wherever, but we must think about developing solutions for global consumption. We must have the planet in mind when we build businesses and solutions.

“This is because when you build something and put it on the internet or on a global platform, it doesn’t matter where you are because that product can be consumed by people anywhere in the world.”

According to Ngcaba, African talent must focus and develop deeper knowledge in specific fields and not chase many opportunities at one go.

“You need to pick what you really want to pursue over time, and not try and be everywhere. I always, honestly, believe the lives we have are very short to become a jack of all trades. It’s just practically not possible.

“Even for myself, for the things that I do, it’s something that I have been involved in for many years. It’s not something that I stumbled upon yesterday. I’ve been in this industry from the late 1970s, but I still have a lot to learn from other people.

“To distinguish ourselves as a country or continent, we need to identify talent, build it and nurture it. The most painful thing to see is when a talent is wasted because you may not get it back if you waste talent. Talent-building is what makes organisations successful.”

He pointed out there is no linear model to say it should be done like this. “I'm not here to try and say I have a formula, but what I'm saying is that what this industry requires is for us to pull the talent.”

Cultivating innovative mentality

Describing his experiences in Silicon Valley, he said: “Silicon Valley is a state of mind as opposed to looking at it as a place.

“People in Silicon Valley live and breathe tech in the true sense of the words. In Silicon Valley, innovation is almost like a religion. There, people come from all over the world, and they will be looking to innovate something – they are passionate about it and they know they will meet somebody from, for example, Bangalore or from Lagos.

“Let’s say this is an incubator or an accelerator – you will meet people from all over the world and people are able to talk to each other. It’s real people who are passionate about technology. That’s why I refer to it as a state of mind – there is no Sunday, there is no evening and there’s no morning. You might go to a Meta hub at 8pm, or on Saturday afternoon, there will be a pitch day at 3pm at some place.

“For those of us who live tech, it’s something you cannot afford not to be part of. Not that it’s because it’s glamorous, but because you get to meet great minds, some of which are way ahead of us. Just to listen to them makes a big difference – it could be about the metaverse, AI, 6G or open source.

“I’ve been going to Silicon Valley for the last 20 years because we have companies that are doing more work that side.”