Dismayed in South Africa

They say local is lekker, but what they really mean is, it`s not. Who says South Africans don`t know the meaning of irony?

What is the level of technological excellence in SA? We may never know.

Cape-based software companies are selling their wares to overseas governments, because local buyers shun their expertise. Government tenders have stated that locally assembled technology does not adhere to international standards. Microsoft admits much of the local development on Xbox is never seen again.

Spurred in part by the Proudly South African campaign, many companies, unheard and unseen, are battling local buyer prejudice or apathy, and failing at that, taking their know-how overseas.

Can we afford this? A strengthening rand against a batch of major currencies means export may hurt more than reap benefits. Although ITWeb`s Salary Survey 2003 identifies a slowing down in the brain drain, we still don`t recognise South African excellence. Our ICT companies are still moving offshore.

We cannot depend on the goodwill of the next whiz kid to plough back the fruits of his or her hard-earned respect into local soil. It is time we celebrated local innovation.

How lekker are we?

Against such a backdrop, one informal element of rating our technology is missing. There are few customer references in some technologies, including applications developed in places you`ve never heard of, or in new technologies, such as the power line comms equipment developed in the Cape.

It is time we celebrated local innovation.

Carel Alberts, Journalist, ITWeb

Although large organisations and parastatals seem interested, they are apparently loath or legally unable to assist in the development of technology during the tender process. Spending several years on development could financially cripple a small outfit seeking to compete with overseas suppliers. But anything less than a cheap, end-to-end range of gear will not entice local buyers.

When it comes to software, I see no reason not to buy local. Its value lies solely in the intellectual sphere, meaning a refusal to buy local apps is like saying we don`t write software to the same quality as they do overseas.

Another reason for the battle is finding the right strategy to market, a factor of the capital available for local developers as well as the size of the local market, which conspires against gaining critical mass, which in turn spurs recognition.

One spokesman for a software distribution firm says local developers must align themselves with international software vendors as independent software vendors, hoping for international exposure.

Easier with hardware

Hardware is a different issue and easier to rate. If we`re honest, the assemblers say, both perception and reality indicate that SA-assembled PCs are not of the same quality as the large, tier-one overseas brands. Firstly, they`re perceived to be inferior, because local marketing and advertising budgets don`t allow for competition with the likes of HP or Dell.

The reality is often the same. In my research for this column, the real difficulties of establishing quality control procedures became apparent. Although any local assembler will say he adheres to the same quality control procedures as a tier-one brand, digging a bit deeper will reveal that ISO 9000 certification doesn`t quite mean what you may think. There is no consultation with the applicant on actual standards, just correlation of adherence to the standards one sets oneself. One plant may test for four hours, the next for forty. It makes no difference.

If you go to Hong Kong, the place is swarming with auditing organisations consulting on quality control for assembly plants. In SA, the best companies can do is to send staff overseas to certify them, adding to the already prohibitive cost of trying to compete.

As regards, say, memory testing, LG, Samsung and Kingston pour huge capital investment in testing facilities, something local manufacturers cannot do.

Solving the dilemma

It`s too easy, however, to give in to the anti-Made In SA syndrome. Buying imports on perception of quality is doing so for the wrong reason. The right reason is to be informed and to make a judgment call.

We all have a responsibility to encourage support of local production, and the equal and opposite responsibility of the buyer is to become informed about local standards. Visit the plants, as the State IT Agency has shown it is willing to do, avail yourself of the differences and make a decision whether to sacrifice the sometimes miniscule difference in quality or not, weighing it up against the greater good of stimulating the local economy. If the quality is identical, clearly we must buy local products.

Of course, there are no shortcuts. The vendor has the additional responsibility of telling the truth. I am pleased to come back from abroad into an industry that generally seems to be growing up and gone beyond using hype as a method to sell as much as possible as quickly as possible. Perhaps at this stage, it is possible for us to market responsibly, although it requires far more work.

We cannot allow charlatans to frustrate this collective effort. The press must highlight inconsistencies in quality, as well as consistent differences in quality between the brands. But as the commentators point out, remember that some things cannot improve, because of the differences in volumes and the capex that can be justified in an assembler`s budget.

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