Gareth Cliff talks SXSW and mobile in Africa

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Media personality Gareth Cliff recently attended the South by Southwest Conference & Festivals (SXSW), where he gained some insight into what the tech industry is thinking and where mobile in Africa is heading.

The president of CliffCentral spoke to media update’s Adam Wakefield about what went down at the festival, and why Africa is much more advanced in certain arenas compared to its Western peers.

SXSW and changing the world

Cliff, who also attended SXSW last year, was invited, along with WeChat Africa CEO Brett Loubser, to speak at SXSW about mobile opportunities in Africa, the proliferation of smart phones, and CliffCentral’s story as a content and media business in the mobile space.

The overall gestalt of this year’s conference, from Cliff’s perspective, was finding ways to solve problems with technology and connecting people to the content and people they care about.

“The fact is that it’s how people think in that space. It’s not necessarily what the next big idea is, but what do people need?” Cliff explains.

“What are the problems we can help people solve? If we can find out what those are, then we’ll be closer to inventing businesses and coming up with ideas that will either make us very, very rich or will change the world.”

Cliff describes SXSW as a gathering of geeks, billionaires, venture capitalists and entertainers, with the likes of Mark Cuban, Chris Zacca or Casey Neistat all “half-pretending to be philanthropists”, but they are really capitalists.

“There’s nothing wrong with that. They’re thinking about, ‘What can I do to make people’s lives easier?’ which is precisely what they should be thinking about,” Cliff says.

“If people in South Africa thought that way, we’d have a lot more successful small businesses, and they are popping up here and there, just little things that mean you don’t have to go to the bank for a bank statement to be FICAed, or get a loan, or a cellphone contract.”

Businesses that solve problems are the ones people are willing to pay for, which means the right idea translates into a successful business. In South Africa, Cliff feels there is too much focus on what people think, which cannot be changed, instead of how they think.

A person’s political position may be entrenched, but they are also thinking about how they will get to work, whether their relationships are good or bad, if they need to go to the shops for food, and so on. Everyone shares those type of concerns.

“It’s how you think, rather than what you think. There is a lot more common ground than people realise,” Cliff says.

An eclectic environment curious about mobile in Africa

Cliff notes that SXSW’s split between interactive, music and film festivals sees each of those camps mostly keep to themselves. However, that mix does spill over onto the streets of Austin, Texas, where SXSW is held.

“You’ve got buskers on street corners, you got comedians, you got people running around promoting their new start-up, their new app, and you got guys peddling around on Game of Thrones bicycles, where you can sit on The Iron Throne as you are taken around,” Cliff says.

“It’s a very interesting mix of people. What you’ve got there is a seed bed for people to share ideas and collaborate and I remember last year when I went, just talking to people about what we are doing. They always ask, ‘What do you do?’ They never rush to tell you what they do.”

You get into conversations, and you never know who you might be talking to. The next thing you know, you are speaking at SXSW, which is precisely what happened to Cliff and Loubser.

Cliff says there is “huge curiosity about Africa”, since, from his perspective, no matter how educated Americans may be, they know very little about the continent or South Africa.

“They start to wake up and pay attention when you say to them, ‘The whole of this continent represents the biggest untapped market of consumers’ and of early adopters, people who are very tech savvy, who don’t have an infrastructure upon which to build their businesses and do commerce.”

Compared to the United States, where the smartphone falls within the wider ecosystem of laptops and desktops, in Africa it is what Cliff calls “a tool of emancipation more than just a tool of connection”.

Smartphones are used for everything and, as a result, users on the continent have already hit the mass appeal part of the adoption bell curve. The continent is hungry to make connections, do business and hear, see, read and be a part of information and news through mobile.

“To Africans, this is second nature, whereas, in America, it is not,” Cliff says.

“They’re also fascinated by the intersection that we occupy, of media, e-commerce, technology, and that overlap is where they see opportunity. There’re lots of people that are developing stuff that will become useful here.”

What Cliff has brought back from SXSW

Asked what he brought back from SXSW that he will apply going forward, Cliff says South African companies are obsessed with scaling up and being on an exponential growth curve.

“It is really about who you bring on board, what kind of information you are interested in getting, and these days it is not difficult to get the information you care about,” Cliff says.

“We’re looking at how to position ourselves as the number one in terms of podcasting and online broadcasting in Africa, which has always been our vision from day one, but I have more tools now in order to make that happen.”

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