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Local technology, international potential

Alistair Fairweather

Products like M4JAM and Webfluential show the quality of tech innovation in SA and teach us to celebrate local pioneers, writes Alistair Fairweather.

Twitter seemed like a stupid idea at the time, and so did Google. The internet seemed like an impractical and stupid idea, come to think of it. We need a few more stupid ideas of our own. (M&G, Delwyn Verasamy)

The internet is full of get-rich-quick schemes. Just like the secrets to magical weight loss, these schemes are exactly what they appear to be – too good to be true. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for ordinary people to make money via the internet. Two local startups are betting they can build a business out of helping people do just that.

M4JAM (a play on “money for jam”) is built around the concept of microwork. Large, repetitive jobs that would take one person weeks or months are broken down into bite-sized tasks and farmed out to an army of microworkers. Armed with smartphones, these workers can earn small sums of money for completing these tasks.

These jobs are typically things that computers cannot do – like confirming which roads in a city are being repaired or whether a new product is in stock at every supermarket in the country.

Companies could send out employees to handle these tasks, but driving on every road in a city could take months and going to every supermarket in the country even longer than that. You could employ hundreds of people to do these jobs but what about when they’re complete? Why not just pay someone R10 to tell you whether their local supermarket, which they already visit weekly, has your new chocolate bar in stock?

Microwork is not an entirely new idea. It’s already being used to lift rural Africans out of poverty. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service has been dividing up large jobs and parcelling them out to willing microworkers for nearly a decade.

Outsourcing mundane tasks via the internet is also a well-established practice. Companies like TaskRabbit already connect millions of buyers and sellers of such tasks. Many people are time-poor but relatively money-rich. Services like TaskRabbit allow them to outsource time consuming tasks like laundry or researching travel options to people who are relatively time-rich and money-poor. Both parties benefit from a matching of needs and neither has to make long-term commitments.

Creating income opportunities
What the founders of M4JAM have realised is that combining microwork with increasingly ubiquitous smartphone ownership allows them to seamlessly connect demand for affordable outsourced labour with highly efficient and self-regulating supply of that labour.

Because of the nature of the work – small tasks that anyone can do without breaking their normal routine – they do not require people to leave their existing jobs to make a little extra money. And companies, in turn, do not need to employ armies of casual labourers only to lay them off as soon as the job is done.

You could argue that platforms like M4JAM will exacerbate unemployment, but that’s unlikely. Most of these tasks are too geographically dispersed and unwieldy even for casual labour systems. Many of them would simply not have been done because the cost of logistics outweighed the benefits. So this is essentially new money for new value – the ultimate win-win.

If anything, M4JAM will give the unemployed opportunities to earn income that might not otherwise have been within their reach. And less of their income will be gobbled up by intermediaries like labour brokers.

Leveraging online influence
Like M4JAM, Webfluential aims to correct a natural asymmetry between supply and demand. Brands around the world are desperate to connect with customers on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, but many of them struggle to do so. Social media is a deeply personal medium, and most brands lack the finesse required to navigate the space.

And yet these platforms are teeming with influential people who connect with audiences that can number in the millions. Many of these people are a product of social media – they are not famous people who happened to join Twitter, they are famous because of Twitter.

Those already famous for other reasons are usually already monetising that fame, but social media stars often have careers unrelated to their internet fame. Few people are brave (or, perhaps, foolish) enough to quit a steady job and rely on their Twitter or Facebook following for all of their income.

Brands can woo these influencers directly – many already do – but that approach can be quite hit-and-miss. You may invite the Twitter fashionista to your event and she might drink your French champagne, but she may not tweet anything complimentary if she does not feel like it.

It’s also quite difficult for brands to tell who is truly influential and who is merely a poseur. You can easily buy robotic followers in their tens of thousands, so even apparently hard numbers can be deceiving.

That’s where Webfluential comes in. It connects brands with influencers and brokers the resulting agreements. It also vets these influencers and calculates their true reach. So brands can be sure that they’re getting what they pay for.

Some influencers will balk at shilling for corporations but many more will be more than happy to be paid to mention a brand they already like. The furtive relationship between public relations firms and the media is fraught with misunderstandings and disappointments. Webfluential offers a clean solution: you endorse us and we pay you a fee commensurate with your reach. If sports people can do it, why can’t Twitter stars?

Investing in SA
Neither of these platforms are guaranteed to work and neither has proved their long-term sustainability yet, but their potential is obvious. More importantly, these are South African entrepreneurs starting technology companies in South Africa. Instead of flitting off to Silicon Valley, they’re investing in their home.

And they’re not alone. Dozens of technology startups dot the country, with clusters like the Sillicon Cape Initiative leading the charge. Yet, many South Africans still suffer from a kind of cultural cringe.

If it’s not from the developed world, the subconscious argument goes, it’s not good enough. This dampens investment and breeds unhealthy risk aversion. It also drives talented South Africans to move to countries in which risk taking is encouraged.

For all its many flaws, the United States is still one of the best places in the world to start a technology company. Think of Elon Musk – a boy from Pretoria who moved to California and has since revolutionised three industries: online payments, electric cars and space travel.

We need to learn to celebrate our local risk takers and pioneers, not dismiss them. Twitter seemed like a stupid idea at the time, and so did Google. The internet seemed like an impractical and stupid idea, come to think of it. We need a few more stupid ideas of our own.


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