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Brainpower outshines artificial intelligence in Sandton

With every problem an opportunity in disguise, South Africa’s tech start-ups are on fertile ground. They may succeed where the system is failing.
Michael Jordaan says the start-ups he has opted to back are working on solutions to serious problems such as the country’s high data, banking and electricity prices. Image: Moneyweb

South Africa has no shortage of aspiring Zuckerbergs, and potential financiers, if their ideas are original and viable, judging from the impressive queue at the Sandton Convention Centre on Tuesday morning.

Though billed as an artificial intelligence (AI) gathering, the dominant theme of the AI Summit appeared to be tech start-up funding.

I started the day attending a presentation by former FNB CEO turned venture capitalist Michael Jordaan in the JSE-sponsored ‘scale-ups’ room.

Jordaan ended his talk by begging the young, educated members of the audience not to emigrate, but to remain in South Africa and start businesses offering solutions to the country’s many serious problems.

“Entrepreneurs can do more for this country than politicians or anyone else,” he says.

Jordaan’s first goal when he retired from corporate life? To cut down on coffee and get fit. But reducing his caffeine intake proved difficult once word spread that he was looking for entrepreneurs to finance. Everyone wanted to have coffee with him.

He repeated a complaint often heard from venture capitalists: they get inundated with mostly derivative and half-baked ideas from people who expect financiers to execute their ideas for them.

The start-ups he has opted to back are working on solutions to serious problems such as South Africa’s high data, banking and electricity prices. Jordaan said that while still in his old job he could not admit that South Africa’s banking fees are way too high. But now he can.

Though generally trying to sound upbeat, Jordaan was fairly sober about the prospects of the start-ups he picked.

“I know for a fact that some of them are going to fail,” he said, without singling any one out.

R11m for a good idea explained well

He reminded his audience to consider crowdfunding, relating a story about a friend who raised R11 million – for a business idea based on Lego’s patent expiring – after uploading a well-made video that clearly explained the idea. The start-up was soon acquired by a New Zealand-based toymaker.

Following Jordaan’s talk, I popped into the ‘disruptive tech’ room where, despite the name, the theme was again venture capital. A shark tank-style show was underway, with entrepreneurs pitching their ideas to a panel of experts and potential financiers.

Those behind the presentations I sat throughy appeared to have heeded Jordaan’s advice.

They all focused on ways of using technology to address South Africa’s high rate of unemployment.

Various ideas for offering an Uber-type service to companies looking to hire short-term, blue-collar labour were pitched, taking into account that potential temporary employees often cannot afford smartphones, or live in areas where internet access is poor or non-existent. One proposal was to use SMSs instead of the internet for communication between job seekers and employers.

Good question

A key part of these services involved allowing employers to rate temporary employees to aid future bosses.

One of the panelists, Wits robotics lecturer Benjamin Rosman, asked if these services would reciprocally allow workers to rate employers so as to warn their fellows against bad bosses. Some said they would.

Asked whether AI would worsen South Africa’s unemployment rate by replacing humans with machines, Rosman joked: “As the token academic in this room, I want to point out that work is bad and should be done away with.”

This turned the conversation to US presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s proposal to introduce a universal basic income.

The consensus was that Yang has little chance of winning in 2020, but that he has planted a seed in the minds of the TV-watching masses.

Some of the speakers at the summit believe a future beckons in which all work will be done by machines while we enjoy a leisurely life spending our assured basic income.

Rosman would no doubt be interested in the yin side of Yang’s vision of the future.

Robert Laing is a journalist and founder of

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If there only were more people with Micheal Jordaan’s insight our country will be on top of the world in less than a year.

I don’t think so. Didn’t he say while he was up there he couldn’t admit that banking fees were high


Our country, on top of the world, in less than a year you say?

Even with poetic licence I would dare say that is impossible.

I have to be sceptical, because if the ANC stays in power all the momentum is negative and downward, doesn’t even matter what kind of economic metric you choose to look at.

Not being negative, just a realistic pessimist.

@boots-sure there are plenty of such people in SA but ANC do not want or use them. They prefer sycophants.

A wise entrepreneur once told me your product/service has to do one of two things.

Either save customers overall costs or make more money for end user. If you can do both then you’ve got a home run.

Unfortunately, the SA economy can’t grow on ideas that merely save costs as per article. We’ll need a miracle to find ideas that can generate more money for economy.

Booze and cigarettes (and hookers :-)) don’t do any of the above, but they’re still wildly popular.

Michael Jordaan is certainly a clever guy 😉 …clever enough to realise he just used MoneyWeb as a platform to give his business some marketing exposure / PR…(with the writer’s blessing)

…and Robert Laing as journo promoting his own business, along with it 😉
Online exposure is the name of the game…just give us readers interesting articles which leads to plenty of views/clicks (i.e. read advertising revenue)

End of comments.





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