Kieron Kirkland | Same But Different — Why UK and South African social tech startups have the same problems

26th January 2016 Posted by: Cat Cochrane

At Tech for Good TV, we're delighted to share the second of recently published articles by Kieron Kirkland, Co-Founder and Director of Cast, a UK-based company collectively helping organisations use technology to deliver their social mission and get early stage ideas to scale


So, South Africa is 8,865 miles and a 190 hours drive from the UK (according to Google Maps, which curiously puts the centre of the UK just north of Moffat, in Scotland, something which should please Nicola Sturgeon). With this cultural and geographic distance, the differing levels of technology infrastructure, and contrasting levels of poverty, you’d be forgiven for thinking the way people are using tech to solve social issues would be wildly different in South Africa compared to the UK.

Well, no. In terms of the challenges of creating and scaling social technology, things are remarkably alike.

Firstly, for those growing mission-driven technology businesses, South Africa has exactly the same problems the UK has. There are a heap of exciting, early stage ventures, many of which have promising signs of growth, but aren’t achieving investment and scale. I’ve heard this called the ‘Series A Crunch’, ‘valley of death’, ‘pioneer gap’, or as we call it at CAST, the ‘missing middle.’ It’s the same story however you term it: early stage social startup gets seed money (or boot straps itself), goes for so long, but can’t get the traction it needs to convince later stage investors to invest in them. They struggle on for a bit, either radically pivoting their business model, or go under. As with the UK, South Africa struggles with the availability and form of early stage risk capital — the innovative finance team at the Bertha Centre of Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship have been doing some fascinating work in this area.

| The Series A Crunch, or the lack of venture funding for tech start ups after an initial point, is an issue faced in both UK and South Africa alike

But beyond access to capital, there’s two consistent aspects of business model viability I’ve seen in the UK and here that determine success. I’ll explore them in more detail in a later post. But firstly, Market Size — whether the organisation is addressing a social issue so specific that there isn’t a big enough market to sustain the venture. And secondly, Product/Market fit — whether the venture is addressing a problem the customer cares about enough that they will pay for a solution.

Beyond the financial aspects, a second similar issue UK and South African social tech start ups face is finding tech talent. “You think trying to find a developer in London is hard? Try doing it in Joberg,” was probably the quote that summed it up from Luke Jordan at Grassroot — a startup building digital tools for self-organizing community groups. There’s simply not enough tech talent to support the growing industry. Finding junior developers is hard enough, but experienced CTO’s are like gold dust. Elizabeth Gould, Co-Founder and CEO of codeX, which trains young developers from disadvantaged backgrounds noted there’s a range of reasons for this. Firstly there’s issues about access to technology, and digital exclusion — so young people often don’t have the basic digital skills to build on. Secondly, even the computer science courses at universities have a comparatively small output of graduates compared to the need — and of course (as with anywhere) the cost of university education means it isn’t available to all.

Thirdly, those who do come out of training get rapidly snapped up by the big corporates who are also struggling to find talent. And finally, for many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, there’s pressure to start earning right now to support their family and themselves — rather than training for months and relying on loans or financial support from family or friends (where that is even possible). This is particularly challenging given that in SA tech doesn’t yet have a mainstream profile and reputation as a lucrative industry. So those who do have the opportunity to invest in training are likely to be steered towards more traditional occupations like medicine or law.

 | Co-Founder and CEO of codeX, Elizabeth Gould (centre), with a team of developers, mentors and young coders

Another area of similarity between UK and South African social start ups, is with the actual social issues these organisations are dealing with. Firstly, social tech organisations in SA are often attempting to impact issues that are equally present in the UK. For example, The Open Medicine Project creates guides for doctors that operate on Android and iOS, — giving them access to up-to-date medical information on their smartphones. But, crucially, these work offline so are still useful when there’s no internet access — key to many of the doctors working in areas without wifi or a reliable mobile network. While the apps the Open Medicine project are producing are getting a huge amount of use in Sub Saharan Africa, they are also seeing growth in the US and UK — where doctors have the same needs.

Lastly, there’s a fascinating background issue facing social start ups which work with marginalised communities in both countries, but one that is rarely talked about. That is the barriers to doing rigorous, upfront ethnographic and user research to ensure the startups are building the right solution to the right problem for the community. However, that’s such a key—and under addressed issue—I’ll save it for a different blog post.

On a slightly lighter note, I’ve noticed that in both countries every taxi driver I’ve met expects me to have an impassioned knowledge of the struggles of the Premier League. And in both countries, I continue to have no idea about that whatsoever :)

This article was originally published on



“You think trying to find a developer in London is hard? Try doing it in Joberg,” was probably the quote that summed it up from Luke Jordan, Co-Founder of civic and social organisation, Grassroot


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