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The Irish are coming!

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The Web 2.0 Summit in Dublin was notable for its speaking line-up, but the real surprise was found among the start-ups on show, and their understanding of the South African market, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

When one attends a hi-tech expo, one expects to see jaw-dropping new gadgets, applications and ideas at work. At the Web 2.0 Summit in Dublin, Ireland, last month, I had a series of jaw-dropping moments while visiting the stands of Irish start-ups exhibiting at the event. But none of those moments had anything to do with the technology under discussion.

The first came in a chat with Gareth Cuddy, CEO of ePubDirect, which has developed an electronic book distribution system.

‚Would it work in South Africa?‚ was the obvious question. The usual answer, at most expos of this kind around the world, would be that it could be adapted to any country. Cuddy went a step further: ‚We already have books in Zulu and Afrikaans in the system, and clients in South Africa.‚

It was the first time I’d ever met a vendor at an international expo who had even heard of Afrikaans.

The next stand was for a mobile billing system for small payments, called boxPAY.

‚So would it work in South Africa‚ ? I asked marketing manager Amanda Keating.

‚Well, it includes multiple of Rand denominations, so you could pay as little as R10, R20 or R30,‚ she said, bemused by my startled expression.

My jaw was no longer dropping by the time I reached CurrencyFair, an innovative exchange marketplace for travellers who want to swop foreign currency before or after a trip anywhere in the world, at a better rate than they’d get from the banks. But it was still startling. Knowing that exchange control restrictions meant South Africans couldn’t take part in this exchange, I asked managing director Brett Meyers whether Rands were included in the system.

Without hesitation, he showed me how many travellers were offering Rands for exchange, and at what rate. He took me through the process visitors to South Africa would follow before their trips if they wanted to obtain Rands, and after their trips if they wanted to get rid of the currency.

One after the other, these small start-ups were demonstrating their ability to think beyond the confines of major Western markets. More than that, they demonstrated their innate knowledge of smaller markets, and their willingness to embrace the specifics of the South African market.

Approach similar start-ups at any American, Asian or European expo or conference, and you’d be hard-pressed to find company representatives on the stands who could place South Africa on a map, let alone talk about its currency or languages.

The cherry on top, at the Web 2.0 Summit, was hearing a South African accent during a panel discussion on the Future of Payments. It turned out to be ex-Capetonian Errol Damelin. He is founder of a British online provider of small loans called Wonga.com. And it recently opened a Cape Town office.

But Damelin was an exception, and not exhibiting. The start-ups on show were all Irish, and they were all hungry for new markets. Very few of them consider the United States a viable market, since it is so well-trampled by America’s own army of start-ups. The United Kingdom is still suffering deep recessionary blues, and it takes a brave soul, perhaps a foreigner like Damelin, to spot the opportunities there.

That leaves only emerging markets as lands of opportunity. But of course, when you don’t even think you are on the same planet as those markets, you will never reach them. The Irish start-ups, along with their bright ideas, skills and enthusiasm, have also done their geography homework.

Next time someone tries to sell you a new hi-tech service or product in South Africa, don’t be surprised if the offer comes with an Irish accent.

* Arthur Goldstuck heads up the World Wide Worx (www.worldwideworx.com) market research organisation and is editor-in-chief of Gadget. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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