The role of government in fostering an active tech startup ecosystem

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One issue often mentioned in discussion about mobile and the web as platforms for technology entrepreneurship in Zimbabwe is the issue of an environment that doesn’t encourage innovation, and one that doesn’t reward on merit. It is no secret that Zimbabwe has fallen behind other top nations in Africa in harnessing the potential of these platforms for economic development. While adoption of mobile phones and the internet has significantly increased, we still just use these platforms to make calls, access emails, Facebook and, for the academics, some research.

Talk of technology entrepreneurship is therefore focused on mobile operators, internet providers and the traditional large software companies that do big projects for fellow large enterprise clients and the government. This, despite the fact that the much touted rapidly increasing mobile penetration and the resulting African mobile phenomenon (where low cost mobile devices are the new internet user’s first and only device of internet access) are, at the end of the day, a clear sign of the much talked about consumerisation of technology. We therefore miss the mark when we talk about ICTs as enablers of economic development while largely excluding the small mobile and web startup entrepreneurs in the strategy.

Besides being at the forefront of understanding and quickly adopting these new technologies (and therefore not slowed down by legacy issues) these new entrepreneurs are closer to the ground and understand more the basic use of these technologies by ordinary people. Fascinated and motivated by the successes of other youthful entrepreneurs in Africa and globally, the startup entrepreneur is ready to try new ways and new solutions to resolve their everyday problems. Large corporates on the other hand are slowed down by software and infrastructure legacy issues and struggle not ready to discard desktop computing as the main means of interface with system users.

The young geeks realize that, more than ever before, the same open source development tools and applications available to developers in the US, China, South Africa or Kenya, are now available to everyone at no cost with just a single download.

A healthier environment for tech startups can be cultivated and government can play a role to make this happen. Creating an environment where tech startups are included and encouraged will not only help the economy optimize new technology platforms but it will attract foreign investment as startups expand the business beyond our borders.  In saying that, I don’t ignore the realities Zimbabwe faces with lack of consistency presenting the country as a secure destination of investment.

As a country we’ve already had enough talented and skilled professionals leave for countries where their skills are valued, economies predictable, and (speaking more generally) opportunities available on merit. We will continue to lose more if we don’t start to support them to be successful. If they can’t raise funding here because investment is hard to get and if they can’t belong to a healthy technology startup ecosystem where innovation and merit matter more than being connected politically, our software engineers, designers and entrepreneurs will go to countries where they can access a more supportive ecosystem.

The support can be anything from helping setup tech co-working spaces, creating favourable tax conditions for tech startups, making telecoms regulations more favourable for entrepreneurs to succeed, identifying social or economic issues and facilitating competitions where tech startups compete to solve the problems and get funding and mentorship assistance with setting up the business.

All in all the government needs to encourage and recognize tech startups for the role they play creating value from ICTs.

image via ziviso.wordpress.com
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  • Mr Hollywood

    Well said,good article :)

  • JamesM

    In the absence of a government with a credible vision and one that fosters digital tech, fortunately we now live in a digital world economy that given an individual’s effort and industry one can realize successes that go beyond national borders. The Googles and Microsofts of this world never ever looked to a government to spur them. The collective industry of a few individuals have made them into the global and desirable brand names they are today. Those are examples which we should aspire to here in Zim.

  • macdchip

    Most governments around the world view IT with suspicion on first notice, when they have been charmed, they want to control it for obvious reasons, some justified, some not. Governments around the globe are always playing a catch game with IT developments and trends of business.

  • Tapiwa ✔

    I think first and foremost, the role of a government should be purely that of a regulator (with a light touch) and not as a competitor/regulator. Parastatals in key areas (like telecoms) typically lead to regulations that entrench the position incumbent and/or attempts to leverage government ownership (hello GSM licensees 1 and 4…).

    The amount of red tape one has to go through is also amazing; cutting down on that will really help lower the barriers of entry.

  • Developer

    Any gvt on Earth could learn from the gvt of Estonia. check e-Estonia.com and be inspired.

  • Developer

    lemme copy and paste a few things about this Estonia i am ranting about…

    Estonia has by far the most highly-developed ID card system in the world, providing access to a range of online services
    In 2005, Estonia became the first country in history to make internet voting available in a nationwide election   
    99% of banking transactions in the country are performed online
    94% of tax returns filed in 2011 were done so online
    There are more mobile phone contracts in the country than residents – 121 per 100 people
    Free WiFi is widespread in urban areas, particularly in Tallinn, which has been named among the top ten cities on the globe for WiFi convenience
    More than half of drivers in downtown Tallinn pay for their parking via SMS
    Estonia has become a hotbed of software innovation. Skype was developed here
    Tallinn is home to NATO’s Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence
    And the president has this to say…

    “Were the internet to have a postal address, it would most likely be here in Estonia.” -Toomas Hendrik Ilves, President of the Republic of Estonia 

    I blv all this can be possible if the GVT implements measures and policices to promote real ICT.

  • macdchip

    you skipped to mention that it has population of only 1,3 million, and have a major resource in oil. Now, that doesnt need guessing where all the money and equipment to bankroll such less populated country than Harare is coming from doesnt it?

  • Developer

    if it had anything to do with Oil then Iran/Iraq/Angola will be the leading ICT countries!