SA Innovation Summit 2020: Empowering the next generation of African innovators

For the very first time in its 13-year history, the SA Innovation Summit (SAIS) – the largest start-up event in Africa – took place virtually, connecting the start-up ecosystem across countries and continents. The main event saw 69 speakers comprised of seasoned entrepreneurs, investors and other ecosystem experts sharing their insights during an array of masterclasses, workshops, panel discussions, roundtables and keynotes. At the same time, 101 start-ups went head to head in the four demo days and pitch battles which took place concurrently with the programme.

Educating entrepreneurs

A highlight of the event was a think tank, the topic of which was Let’s Scale and featured a panel of accomplished entrepreneurs from all over Africa. Together, they shared their experiences of building successful companies that are expanding their reach in Africa and gave advice on what to expect. Moderated by Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, Co-Founder and General Partner at Future Africa, the panel included Aisha Pandor, Co-Founder and CEO of  SweepSouth; Emeka Ajene, Co-Founder and  MD of Gozem; and Louw Barnardt,  Co-Founder and Managing Partner at Outsourced CFO.  

Among the many nuggets of wisdom that emerged from the session was Pandor’s  urging of start-ups not to take a cookie cutter approach when expanding into new markets. “You have to try and understand differences in culture because that affects reception of your business. You also have to temper your expectations and adjust your way of doing things.”  Barnardt also raised a crucial point, saying: “The last six months have taught us that, when you think about expansion,  consider what  you can do without incurring too much debt or selling too huge a portion of equity and burning too much money. Rather, figure out how to do it in a way that is as profitable as possible, knowing that you can pull certain levers to get it to profit and then tackle your next market, but in a manner that is more secure and more solid.”

Another session which proved popular amongst the aspiring and early-stage start-ups in attendance was the fireside chat, titled Ready…Set…Start-up! The panel, moderated by Cerina Bezuidenhout, Co-Founder of Future Females, consisted of Onyeka Akumah, Founder and CEO of FarmCrowdy; Idan Jaan, Co-Founder and CEO of  Fundrr; and Dineo Lioma, Co-Founder and COO of CapeBio Technologies.  The trio discussed their start-up journeys, how they founded and funded their businesses and whether the African start-up ecosystem supported them.  Each of the panellists offered advice based on their own struggles and successes, including Akumah who said: “There is no better time to start a business. Start small, the simpler your idea the better. You don’t need all the funding in the world to kickstart your business, your funding includes the human capital around you with skills that are complementary to yours, so use your network, use your collective expertise and experience to get the business off the ground.”

Over the course of the two-day Summit, attendees had the opportunity to attend eight masterclasses. They were enthralled by sessions such as Marketing Innovation to 10X Your Business which delivered by Conversion Optimisation Specialist Leon Lategan; The IP Primer by  Von SeidelsTrademark & Copyright Attorney, Christine Strutt who introduced the major areas of intellectual property, and Innovation Revolution by Millennial Motivator Dan Willis who emphasised the importance of rapid and consistent evolution for business success.

Innovating in the new normal

Looking at what the new normal means for start-ups, the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and businesses in general, was Dr Puleng Makhoalibe, Founder of Alchemy Inspiration and Alison Collier, Managing Director of Endeavor South Africa. During their discussion, Collier shared: “Supply follows demand and, as COVID-19 hit, consumers were forced to shift to doing things remotely. Because of the disruption, we are finding much more effective solutions to how we engage, how we transact and how we do things and we’re not going to go back to the same way that it was before because some of these alternatives are enormously more productive and have a much lower cost. It has been incredible to see the pace of the change amongst start-ups to cater for this shift and we will see more – I think it’s only just starting.”

Dr Makhoalibe added: “We need to positively reframe COVID-19 to help us, as corporates, organisations and entrepreneurs, to shift. COVID-19 has given us the chance to reclaim our creative power, to tap into opportunities that emerge from the intersection of technology and our various industries, to create a new vision for our businesses that serves humanity, to manifest our talents, to adopt new technologies and digital strategies that allow us to work better while also enabling us to consider the shift needed in our operational model that will lead us to thrive.”

A crucial moment of the Summit was the keynote address by Deputy Minister of the Department of Trade Industry and Competition, Nomalungelo Gina who said: “As a country, we no longer have time on our side. We are lagging behind. The post-COVID-19 economy that we intend on building must be centred around stimulating innovation and digitisation.”

Shining a light on Africa’s tech talent

As always, the high point of the event was the announcement of the winner of the Africa Cup Competition which gives start-ups and early-stage companies in all tech-enabled sectors from around the world the chance to compete for investment, showcase their products and services, gain market and media exposure, and secure support in the stages of scaling and growth. This year, Nigerian wholesale e-commerce platform, Pricepally, walked away with the honours, with South Africans Nanostream Blu and Finvex taking second and third place respectively.

Cybersecurity platform Snode Guardian  clinched the R50,000  first place prize in the Inventors Garage competition which enables entrepreneurs with a working prototype or product (from proven concept to pre-commercialisation) to gain access to funding or incubation, market exposure and business support.

Scoring a win for South Africa in the Swiss vs. SA pitch battle was Ambani Africa, an African language content platform for young learners. Ambani not only beat out nine other South African start-ups for the winning title, but 10 Swiss start-ups too!

Bringing the main event to a close, SA Innovation Summit Chairperson Audrey Verhaeghe, said: “To keep the momentum generated at this year’s Summit going, we will be launching the SAIS Community, a platform offering year-long networking and matching, ongoing and regular virtual events and workshops, partner and start-up profiling as well as a marketplace.”

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