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South Africa has the makings of a very strong entrepreneurial class. Despite near-consistent challenges, such as a flagging economy and uncertainty around necessary infrastructure, South Africans still pursue their ambitions for running their own businesses.
The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) confirms this in its 2018 report, noting the country has a very high number (75%) of early-entrepreneurs motivated by opportunity. This proportion is higher than other African countries and, according to the monitor, indicates local entrepreneurs are motivated more by opportunity than by desperation.
It defines SA’s entrepreneurs as go-getters and optimistic. As GEM stated elsewhere: “Entrepreneurial activity does not take place in a vacuum, and entrepreneurial attitudes and perceptions (both societal and individual) play an important part in creating an entrepreneurial culture.”
SqwidNet’s Executive of Solutions and Innovations, Sean Laval, agrees: “Entrepreneurship is seen as a cornerstone of economic growth and is critical in promoting competition and innovation within the industry. Entrepreneurs are less restricted by corporate policies and legacy systems that often prevent larger companies from implementing disruptive technologies quickly and effectively.”
How do we capitalise on this culture? It’s vital to create opportunities for entrepreneurs, which is where the exciting and flexible world of the Internet of things (IOT) enters the debate.
Taking the lead with IOT
IOT technologies have come of age. They are commercial and reaching towards being commodities, with services and organisations to back their deployment and support. Unlike many other technologies, IOT products can be introduced in discrete or isolated ways to solve specific problems or manage deployment costs. They can also be part of larger, continual transformation projects.
However IOT is used, there is massive demand. Most IOT applications aim at improving efficiencies or increasing returns on investments. Numerous large and small enterprises are aware of IOT’s potential. Still, there remains a gap for people to develop and deliver on that. This gap is the perfect place for entrepreneurs, says Laval: “Entrepreneurs and small companies are often uniquely positioned to find innovative ways of improving the operations of large organisations through technology. IOT is enabling entrepreneurs to address markets that have historically been reserved for the incumbents or to offer products and services to traditionally underserved sectors.”
Jonga offers an example: a start-up has developed a low cost and low power alarm system for informal communities, instantly alerting neighbours in the event of an incident. Jonga, which was part of SqwidNet’s IOT programme, secured funding in August and has started commercial production.
This example demonstrates the potent link between entrepreneurs and IOT. Here is a company that could develop a commercial solution solving a very basic need for a group of consumers who are traditionally overlooked. IOT, like entrepreneurs, is able to break boundaries and re-contextualise potential in ways others never saw or were capable of.
Building SA’s IOT entrepreneurs
IOT is more accessible than most other emerging technologies. But several challenges need to be overcome for it to flourish among entrepreneurs.
Foremost, it is important to realise that someone with a great IOT-related idea doesn’t need to be an IOT wizard or, for that matter, technically skilled. SA has a vibrant IOT community – aspirant IOT entrepreneurs can engage with it to find the right partners.
“A good place to start is to join the IOT community through a multitude of forums and entities that currently exist within the IOT ecosystem,” says Laval. “Running ideas past other similarly minded people can help to identify possible feasibility issues early on, or further solidify the viability of an idea. Joining such an entrepreneurship programme is a great way to kickstart any new IOT journey, or to accelerate the commercialisation of a project that is already in progress.”
Another barrier is the step from prototyping to delivering commercial products at scale. Funding and market access are important, but the correct technical and business mentorship through the process of commercialisation is critical. These programmes connect entrepreneurs with industry partners, mentors and support, but there is always room for more activities that bring entrepreneurs and IOT together.
Laval sees this as a great opportunity and urges others to engage with such programmes or establish their own: “South Africa has an abundance of IOT enthusiasts, and it is always a pleasure to meet new people in this space and see their ideas coming to life. Technical aptitude is only half of the puzzle, though. We need to focus on providing IOT problem-solvers with frameworks on how to identify sound business opportunities and objectively quantify returns on investment using rational methodologies.”