Alon Lichtenstein is a Cape Town based entrepreneur who sees looking forward the key to success.
Experienced with building and packaging startups around the world, Alon is also the founder of HANGAR49 , a platform that aims to solve human problems using technology-based solutions, which he eventually takes to market.
We caught up with Alon to discuss the impact that technology and coworking space are having on the South Africa ecosystem, and what can be done to strengthen these new models of work.
The initial intention is a platform where corporates investigate R&D, or innovation using 3rd party aspiring founders in the market. Essentially corporates can login to pitch their problem anonymously. They would then then develop an ecosystem and would be presented with solutions.
So, that was my original plan for HANGAR49, but after coming back from traveling in the EU, UK and also the States, I was inspired by the opportunity of being more dynamic and actually creating these solutions, which were difficult to implement in South Africa.
The South African landscape is still relatively conservative from a business perspective, and the market there is in its nature, slightly smaller. While there are many aspirant individuals and projects, these applications don’t receive so much government support like they would in other major urban environments. In general the more commercial landscape makes it difficult to build up disruptive and innovative business at the moment.
Today South Africa is purporting to be smart and intelligent, which it is, but we are experiencing a bit of a brain drain, and still not enough capital distribution and a lack of resources.
Also, because of conservative tendencies in the business world, corporates are not taking advantage of technology and lean approaches to business or even being as tenacious as they could and need to be. I think that there’s a lot of rhetoric around this so we need to make a move to open up these platforms on a state level and a corporate one.
I think that there’s an interesting characteristic found within the regions freelancers, which is probably a result of the history, which is that they are progressive individuals who are not finding opportunity in innovative commercial settings, as they would like. As a result these potential change makers are still led towards to more traditional titles, and at the same time, the labor legislation is pretty sophisticated and there is a high level of protection for employees, which can also keep things stagnant.
Well, it’s a pretty new infrastructure, which is also incredibly progressive, but there’s also a lack of security in this type of environment. Yet the more traditional model can create stagnation in regards to expansion or contraction on need to need basis. Thus there is a strong support for coworking spaces currently growing, especially in South Africa.
South Africa is a first world economy and it is probably older and more sophisticated compared to others in Africa. Companies over the past ten years have seen the ways in which doing business today has become expensive and therefore view coworking spaces in an opportunity. As we are primarily focused on the service industry tech agencies, creative agencies are operating more from within coworking spaces, which is a far more flexible and enjoyable environment.
As an entrepreneur, why are coworking spaces so attractive to scaling up business and ensuring professional success? And would you yourself use the coworking space model?
What I would love to do is have a coworking space as a location, have corporates, who are part of a mid-tier business plan, who is probably in need of some technology in their back pocket. They probably wouldn’t have the cash flow to sit back and watch the business come in, so they would be more innovative and willing to hustle.
The coworking space platform would be perfect for this, as it is an ideal place to bring in fast moving, smart dynamic young people who understands technology and to help leverage these client’s businesses. To succeed today on a global level, you’ve got to embrace really smart tenacious thinkers, who will not get bogged down bound down by procedure, and bureaucratic rules and solutions to problems and obstacles in the business world will be able to emerge more naturally.
Paul Keursten, founder of the OPEN coworking network based in South Africa recently explored the various benefits that come from connecting coworking spaces. His presentation, “Opportunities and benefits of connecting spaces across the continent”, given at the last Coworking Africa 2016 meetup, looks at the role of entrepreneurship, connectivity, and also the implementation of virtual platforms aimed to help better serve their members.
The goal of connecting coworking communities is to “contribute to meaningful solutions and development” by constructing a platform that will be a living network that is both supportive and sustainable, much like a coral reef. This connection is sparked from a need to find solutions found within the current workplace culture. Today’s workplace is becoming increasingly defined by innovation, which is transforming not only the way that we work but also how we understand property models. In regards to physical space, connecting coworking spaces doesn’t only have social benefits, but also many environmental ones. A smarter use of space can save on energy, resources and breathe new life into neighborhoods.
When you nurture innovation and take action, this enables individuals to create natural productive communities. As Paul noted in his presentation, an important part of this connection is breeding innovation by creating diverse environments, or “connecting worlds” that include everyone from entrepreneurs to policy makers, who will inspire one another. Paul’s presentation also strengthens the point that coworking communities where trust, sharing knowledge exchange are easily accessible, are drivers of change. Through creating space for change, there is more room for innovation and job creation.
Another important aspect of connected coworking communities is that they go beyond individual success. A connected professional ecosystem strives to be apolitical, as competition is taken out of the equation. This dynamic allows for there to be a level playing field for all types of professionals. An active and equal community can work together to find build solutions to problems as a team, such as exploring economic, social, cultural, geographical, and professional growth.
The final point of the presentation looked at the way in which connected coworking communities can also manifest themselves into virtual platforms. At OPEN, their virtual community allows members to have access to practical needs at affordable prices, such as room bookings, while also accessing a strong social network.
Just last week Africa had its very first Coworking Conference in Cape Town. Coworking operators and experts from around the world gathered in South Africa to bring know-how from the international coworking community and start an important conversation about the development of coworking in Africa.
In addition to a line-up of inspiring talks, from spaces like Mozambique’s Cowork Lab and Hub Dhaka from Bangladesh, we also came back with some facts and figures that can help the community understand the development of coworking in Africa.
Rapid Economic Growth
There are over 1 billion people in Africa, spread across 54 different countries, and around 70 percent of the population is under 25, which means there is a lot of potential for a rapid growth in industry. As the coworking movement is still carving out its role in the European business sector, it seems that Africa is not far behind.
As one of the world’s fastest growing economies, there are now over 100 million people active on social media and very much in tune with digital trends.
In 2013 Coworking in Africa was hardly known, with just 24 spaces on the map. Today is a different story, with over 100 spaces from Kenya to Cape Town, the global coworking community is becoming more dynamic with the inclusion of African coworking spaces.
South Africa Leading the Way
With 42 coworking spaces and 23 active tech hubs, South Africa is leading the way when it comes to the development of coworking. Currently, more than half of these spaces are based in Cape Town. Like coworking around the world, the majority of these started out small, but their the word is spreading, and big names like Google, Skype and StartupGrind are looking to lend the African community their support.
Addressing the Challenges
While knowledge about coworking steadily increases, the African coworking community is still very much aware of the various obstacles they must overcome, like the lack of quality infrastructure and the availability of a stable internet connection. According to a presentation given by Cape Town Garage, which also has locations in Nairobi and Lagos, many coworking spaces face the same challenge across the continent.
Some of the main issues are ensuring that prices are cost-effective for members, as well as the promotion of coworking.
While the alternative workspace has dramatically increased in popularity, it is still relatively unknown in countries like Nigeria. Thus education is still a priority. CTG explained how they attempt to address these issues faced by many spaces, they also mentioned that power-cuts are still a problem. But with the installation of a generator, the Garage group has found ways to prepare for this as not to compromise the member productivity.
The Future of Coworking in Africa
While there are always challenges, they certainly don’t cast a shadow on a bright future. Paul Keursten, co-founder of Open, an established shared workspace in Cape Town, highlighted in his presentation the richly diverse community in Africa that aims to overcome these obstacles.
Keursten highlighted how coworking spaces can become destinations for the African and international community, which will ultimately help bring local neighborhoods to life. With this idea, the African community is learning how to add value to their buildings, through revitalizing spaces, and enabling cross-pollination between educational institutions, property owners, accelerators and coworkers. A diverse community that is connected, will then be able to promote the concept of coworking on a broader scale, bringing benefits to each player through the value system of the sharing economy.
Other organizations, like TechStars see this growing interest in coworking spaces and accelerators as a ripe opportunity to introduce various wealth management systems, such as a comprehensive banking infrastructure, in a mostly cash-based economy.
For those of you who could not make it to the very first Coworking Africa conference, we have uploaded all the statistics and presentations, including interviews with coworking operators from all across Africa, like The District in Egypt and Bantuhub in Congo, Brazaville.