“When looking at Cape Town and Johannesburg, we are 10 years behind. Durban has yet to define itself within the startup scene of South Africa.”
That’s the view of Lindani Mkhize when asked about the state of the Indian Ocean city of Durban, the third most populous in the country. But he has a plan to change all that.
Mkhize is the founder of Silicon Durbs, a non-profit initiative modelled after the well-established Silicon Cape in Cape Town that aims to function as a business incubator, networking and acceleration hub for Durban.
The initiative aims to allow businesses from different industries to collaborate on projects within the community, and currently has two offerings – events, and a business incubator. Mkhize said Durban may be lagging behind from an ecosystem point of view, but it has the potential to catch up with more established hubs like Cape Town and Johannesburg.
“Durban startups have access to really diverse cultures, and as the only city in the world where you can find a mosque next to a catholic church, the potential for startups to create a business with international scalability and create businesses that not only solve Durban problems but African problems is big,” he said.
The city – and KwaZulu-Natal province as a whole – has already had some success on the startup front, with Mkhize citing the likes of Zapper, Finfind and Spazapp, but the city needs to do more to ensure good entrepreneurs stay put.
“Most tech founders and academics from Durban move to Cape Town and Johannesburg to gain access to opportunities for building their startups or working at one,” said Mkhize.
Silicon Durbs wants to change all that. Founded last May, it is still in the early stages of development and has a membership of over 250 non-paying members, consisting of entrepreneurs and corporates.
“This shows us that there is a demand for an initiative like this in Durban. We just need to connect the talent in Durban with each other to make this happen. Then we can start to compete with the startup culture that exists in Johannesburg and Cape Town,” Mkhize said.
To achieve this, the organisation has been working with Silicon Cape in a bid to replicate what it has achieved down in Cape Town. Mkhize believes there is no shame in replicating what has succeeded elsewhere.
“We believe that we will a lot learn from Silicon Cape, as well as the Cape Town and Johannesburg ecosystems in general,” he said. “Instead of competing we have opted to collaborate and work with them. We aim to tap into their expertise and use their experiences to shape Silicon Durbs. Our aim is to work together with existing innovation ecosystems across the country. That in the long-term will better serve the South African technology innovation ecosystem.”
More pressing, however, is connecting the various innovation-driven initiatives based in Durban itself, with Silicon Durbs aiming to create a holistic ecosystem.
“Currently Durban is operating in silos. This hinders the potential of the city as most initiatives do similar things. This is a good opportunity for Silicon Durbs to break the walls and create a collaborative environment,” said Mkhize.
At this point, he said, it is too early for Durban to say what defines it, but he hopes that within a couple of years he will be able to tell a different story.
“Durban has a strong export and manufacturing economy that is already driving the GDP of the city, and we believe that this sector will play a huge role in giving Durban a technology vertical that can define itself,” Mkhize said.
In the meantime, Silicon Durbs is seeking sponsorship to fund its operations, though it plans to charge members a small commitment fee down the line.
“Our aim is not only gaining sponsorship, but key strategic sponsorship and partners. We wish to partner with businesses that have the genuine aim of changing and developing the ecosystem, but do not want to control that change. We understand as founders what is needed for a startup to gain momentum, and our aim is to help other founders get that access,” Mkhize said.