By Esther Dyson
I’m very much looking forward to visiting East London, South Africa, in late November / early December to meet the amazing collection of start-ups and investors that the team at Angel Fair Africa are assembling for their 10th anniversary, dubbed AFA@10. I first traveled to Africa in 1968. I was taking a half-year off from college because I had started early, and decided to visit my boyfriend, who was working in the Peace Corps teaching English to Moroccan kids so they could work as tour guides… or perhaps find their way to studying somewhere that could offer them a better job for the future. As for me, fortunately I had enough French to go to the market and buy food to cook for Tim and me at home.
For 25 years (1982-2007) I wrote (and mostly owned) an emerging info-tech industry newsletter called Release 1.0, watching the emergence of the PC, the venture capital industry, artificial intelligence and the Internet. As a journalist, I avoided conflicts of interest by not investing. But because I had learned Russian as well as French, I started traveling to Russia in 1989 and started a second newsletter, Rel-EAST, about the East European tech scene. That was a labor of love, with no business model, free to anyone interested. But I realized that just as start-ups would talk to journalists, so would they talk to anyone remotely interested in investing – LOL. A subscriber and friend of mine – Lee Keet of Vanguard Atlantic – asked me: “You keep telling people to invest in Eastern Europe; why don’t you do so yourself? What if I gave you a million dollars?”
“Oh, I can’t,” I replied. “I’m a journa…. How much did you say?!” I ended up shutting down Rel-EAST and starting a small fund called EDventure Ventures, making five software investments in Eastern Europe. (Through many transformations, my small share in our leading pick, Scala Business Software, has transformed into a $6-million-ish public stake in EPAM Solutions.)
That gave me a taste for the direct involvement and guidance that direct, early investing offers, and when I sold my company EDventure (including Release 1.0) to CNET in 2005 and left in 2007, I turned to investing in US and other startups.
The next time I went to Africa, years later, I came back to a rapidly changing continent. In 2002, as chair of an ICANN meeting, I traveled to Accra, where I met – among others – Eric Osiakwan at BusyInternet, an incubator that provided co-working space, in Accra. I later joined the advisory board of Eric’s Chanzo Capital, an investment firm he founded in 2014.
But the thing that impressed me the most was the sign on a hair parlor: It had previously offered “Hair and Telephone,” for a world where more people were traveling or leaving the country altogether, while few people could afford a phone at home. Now, it had been updated to “Hair, Telephone, Internet.” Where else would you go to satisfy all your telecommunication needs? The post office was too slow and unreliable.
And later still, I was a member of the (South African) President’s Information Technology Advisory Council. In September 2006.
We met outside Johannesburg and talked about ending the monopoly position of SA Telecom. Afterwards, my friend Alan Levin took me through Thabo Mbeki Estates, an “informal settlement” outside Johannesburg. Without mentioning the august company, we had just been with, we told them that we were working on cheaper phone service for South Africans. Here was their response.
Then about 10 years ago, I joined DIGAME (DIGital Africa Middle East) as a non-executive director, which funded among other companies Get Smarter (sold to 2U in the US) and 10X Investments, along with SWVL (where I now sit on the board).
In the meantime, I have accumulated my own small portfolio of African startups, including Angaza (Angaza.com, solar panels), Nomanini (Nomanini.com, a financial platform for small retailers), Ilara Health (IlaraHealth.com, formerly lending to health clinics and now also a franchiser), Oradian (Oradian.com, a cloud platform for small financial companies), Rasello (Rasello.com, formerly SMS marketing and now mostly health data collection and analysis), Swvl (Swvl.com, transit as a service), and Trella.app (logistics/trucking).
After three long years – and six years since my last Angel Fair! – I’m looking forward to being in Africa again. There are so many challenges looking for good solutions, so many children eager to be educated and to work for a better future, and so much technology that can scale to the extent that people can manage it. Used right, all this technology can speed the flow of goods and money, and it can shine a light to discover both treasures and corruption, both problems and solutions. It can make not just phone service but Internet accessible and affordable to everyone, and help them all to lead healthier, happier lives. I look forward to engaging in a lively discussion about all of this at AFA@10 in East London, South Africa.
COVER PHOTO: One of the sessions at AFA