By Lara Rosmarin, Head of Entrepreneur Development and Incubation at the Cape Innovation & Technology Initiative (CiTi).
If “necessity is the mother of invention”, then we can certainly credit COVID-19 for forcing us to rethink pre-existing methods of doing business. Suddenly our carefully constructed and thought-through way of doing business no longer seems applicable and in some cases even irrelevant.
In response to the COVID-19 shutdown, many digitally enabled organisations fast tracked their digital transformation, enabling their operations to run efficiently. The UK-South Africa Tech Hub Developer Placement Programme is one example.
Early in 2020 the UK-South Africa Tech Hub embarked on a 6-month pilot developer placement programme powered by The Cape Innovation and Technology Initiative. The programme’s key focus was to increase the number of digitally up-skilled youth entering entrepreneurial activity streams.
The activity streams could present in various ways:
• Placement in digitally enabled SMME’s or tech start-ups.
• Placement in non-tech/traditional business models that would benefit from becoming digitally enabled.
• Placement in a custom designed accelerator programme to foster the creation of new entrepreneurial ventures led by newly up-skilled youth.
The key goal of the programme is to support alternative paths of digitally up-skilled youth into entrepreneurial activity streams. Project objectives include:
• exposing local graduate developers to entrepreneurial activity streams so as to increase the number of developers joining or creating start-ups
• creating new products and prototypes for testing to increase SMME developer capacity or to increase the number of MVP’s moving through the validation phase of the entrepreneurial growth cycle or to digitally enable traditional SMME businesses to support growth and expansion.
Potential candidates were screened, interviewed, shortlisted and placed on the programme. SMME’s welcomed the additional hands-on support, graduate developers welcomed the opportunity for hands-on experience and accelerator candidates looked forward to the early stages in the journey of creating new entrepreneurial ventures.
It’s at this point that the oxymoron “only choice” rang in my ears. By very definition the word choice means to choose between two or more possibilities. COVID-19, however, arrived and provided no choice. Lockdown. Remain at home. Alone, together.
Within a short space of time we were able to deliver tablets and data to all accelerator candidates, enabling their learning to continue online and uninterrupted. Support groups were created, and new channels of communication established. Assignments were submitted online and digital platforms created a “connecting” environment.
It was incredible to witness the willingness to adapt, learn and continue in a positive manner in such a short space of time. The SMME’S where graduate developers were placed worked to ensure that where possible the tools necessary to operate and continue working remotely were made available. SMME’s began to pivot their business models and in some cases change direction completely in order to survive.
We are aware that there are certain challenges that we have little influence over. Low or no connectivity in certain areas makes communication intermittent and often impossible. Level 3 has however enabled us to open our co-workspace equipped with uninterrupted connectivity to programme participants.
We have experienced SMME’s in survival mode. Graduate learning experiences shifted and research task assignments that were less practical and less hands-on were carried out. We are confident that as we return to an environment where businesses can once again begin to trade, there will be further opportunity for growth, learning and human interaction.
The graduates currently have front row seats to the true world of entrepreneurship where being adaptable, resilient, determined, creative, self-motivated, self-disciplined and committed are key to success. No amount of role-play could have taught them this so aptly.
As we continue to assist both the SMME’s and graduates in navigating this uncertain path, we are reminded of the crucial role SMME’s play in economic growth and development. SMME’s drive diversification by developing new and unsaturated sectors in the economy. The creation of support structures and “connectors” to assist the SMME’s where possible during this time of uncertainty is thus essential.
We have been able to share experiences and learnings through our social media platforms and found the engagement to be positive. An environment for sharing new perspectives and insights is always welcome.