First published 24 June 2023

Everyone wants to host the definitive “African tech event”, but what is the true value of an African tech event?

One of the most fascinating things to watch has been the increasing number of tech events organised in or targeting Africa’s technology “ecosystem”. As the numbers continue to grow, the impromptu small group “mixers”, large multi-day multi-track conferences, even bigger exhibitions, plus the staid business and policy affairs are all blurring into each other. The African tech media circus is on a roll, and while I am not complaining, I can’t help but wonder if the generic versions of the same event format are not a sign that the newborn sector needs an infusion of inventiveness.

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The tech event “industry” is a significant several-billion-dollar market globally. In the days and weeks after COVID-19 was officially recognised as a global health emergency, tech event cancellations in the US alone reportedly caused losses of more than $1.1 billion. This was according to PredictHQ, a market intelligence firm focused on the business of events and adjacent industries. That a firm (and likely several others) could find a viable business model in predicting how events shape retail and B2B businesses is a testament to how much value events generate—at least in the United States. You could see the immediate result of the losses facing the events industry in how virtual event startups received massive bouts of venture and public funding as investors (both venture capitalists and in public markets) saw the billions of dollars events market as up for grabs. Zoom anyone? Unfortunately, it did not last even beyond the first year of the COVID-19 health emergency.

Not all and randomly selected on a Sunday afternoon, please don’t be angry with us, if we missed something 🙏🏾 | Infographic: Ayomide Agbaje — TechCabal Insights.

With digital technology penetrating all aspects of urban life, the idea of cities that are smart, where services and infrastructure are optimal for all residents, has taken hold. Especially when paired with technology solutions that are supposed to deliver this urban transformation. Slums have been reimagined in glowing utopian visions.

Physical events are now on an upswing and Africa’s technology ecosystems, which received significant injections of capital in the three years following March 2020, are building their marketplaces of technology events. It is not new, it is just…a lot more and happening in more places than before. London, Paris, Dubai, Marrakech, Cape Town, Kigali, Lagos, Lusaka, Washington DC, heck I’ve seen African tech media being invited to Punjab (you may or may not see me rocking a dark green shalwar kameez in Lahore). The most recent events I have been part of were all first-time events and were excellent in their different ways. But for today’s Sunday essay, I would deeply appreciate responses from organisers (especially) and attendees. I happen to be on both sides. But I am one person and I don’t know it all and I have a responsibility to push the hard questions, no? So here are a few questions for you:

  1. Is there an actual events industry developing alongside or this is all just a sideshow?
    Let me explain. The business value of attending industry events, generally, is obvious. You get to meet people in person. That is often invaluable for a business and I understand that. But the more these events happen and are not differentiated, the more I question if the model (profit for organisers) is that valuable especially as more events resemble each other and are multiplying.
  2. Is there really a demand for and a deep-enough pocket for undifferentiated tech events happening throughout the year?
    If there is a growing demand for these events, that might be a proxy for learning how much business is generated by events. It sounds like data airlines and other types of travel/hospitality businesses will want to look into and use it to create custom packages. If there is not, the question is, how much do regionally disjointed events really help in fostering networking or connections? Or are the same set of people always seeing the same set of other people?
  3. If you’ve attended tech events (especially the conferences and exhibitions) in Africa, what were the top three things you looked forward to when deciding what event to be a part of?

There is a school of thought that dismisses the overall value of attending events. I think it’s an incredibly short-sighted school of thought, especially when applied broadly and they got louder during the “focus on positive unit economics” era of venture capitalists, just a few months ago. And while there is merit to the argument that startup money is not supposed to fund tourism, one could just as easily dismiss the real chance to score new leads or even deals, find and nurture relationships. Or have the opportunity to do things as basic as increasing discoverability—especially for B2B firms.

My point is not whether attending events can be useful. It personally is. But it is also probably subjective to each person’s experience. My concern is whether our events are too undifferentiated to matter, especially in a relatively small “ecosystem” where tech startup relationships with traditional businesses are underdeveloped and the transitional businesses who are most likely to talk to tech startups are mostly in financial services.

Creating better tech events will likely be a long road, at the end of which some events will be solidly cast as segment pillars that people will enthusiastically look forward to. Getting there will mean carefully curating event playlists that combine the right amount of optics, business savvy and attendee value. A few of the personal gripes I wish I could fix with the wave of a wand include what appears to be a lack of interest in boring technical events and the catch-all events that offer standard fare.

What is on everyone’s minds, but goes politely unspoken is often, After celebrating African tech in March, why should I celebrate it in August and again in December?”Is it over-indexing on public relations versus meetings that change things? Can meetings change things? From one event attendee/quasi-planner to another, talk to me, what am I missing?

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Abraham Augustine,

Senior Reporter, Business and Insights

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