Over four and a half years ago, she joined her office in Cape Town as Consul General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Cape Town. She had no idea that she would be setting up something so consequential, that it would get two ecosystems to work together.
After finishing her History and Law degree at the University of Amsterdam, she lived and worked in different countries. Bonnie managed the Public Affairs office in Brussels for Dutch industrialists. In 2002, she joined the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs where she was placed in Bangkok, Baghdad and at the Office for European Integration in 2006. In 2007, Bonnie became the spokesperson for Frans Timmermans (then Minister for European Affairs, now the Vice President of the European Commission).
Having spent her earlier years in Africa, in Ghana and Mali, Bonnie gathered the undercurrents of the largest continent on this planet. She understood the diversity between the countries of the same continent.
In our exclusive conversation with Bonnie, we unraveled some perceptions and some progressive thoughts on collaborations.
What she thinks is the perception?
Bonnie explains, “we have always looked at Africa and India with a very European perspective, almost forcing them to walk the same path as we have.”
Due to colonial structures, the people of these nations were not seen as equal; therefore there was never a conversation on collective problem-solving. It was assumed that what had worked for the Europeans, would naturally work for these nations too. However, this has not been the case all along.
The arrogance and the power structure drowned the listening capabilities of the European population; who could not understand and have empathy for the diversity of the place.
She adds, “for example, we know sanitisation is a common problem for these continents but is the solution to this problem the same or should we adjust solutions to the local needs, culture and environment?”
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Bonnie defines the European countries as more homogeneous; where one solution tends to solve problems across geography. But in Africa, if a product fits well in Congo, it may not work in Lesotho. This often leads to products or solutions not reaching the scale in the current western startup environment, which is a condition for success.
Angel Investors and VCs coming in with a lot of money get frustrated because they feel nothing is moving. They often miss out on the uniqueness of the problems being solved, because they are unable to see the scale.
She quickly adds here, “ startups are solving problems that investors are not used to seeing.”
However, the irony remains that if you go and have a look at the Netherlands startup scene, the ecosystem is getting back to solving niche problems. It is considered “trendy” and “sexy.”
The same small-scale and community-based solutions happening in Africa are not considered scalable or investment-ready.
Has there been a perception shift ?-She says ‘AYE’
For a very long time, Africa has been seen as an impoverished continent and a collection of failing states. But almost overnight, the continent has become the largest growing consumer market. Due to this transition, people outside of the continent are open and willing to listen to what people have to say here.
This shift in the relationship is becoming more equal, though more time is needed to make it entirely equal, she says, and the creative power of the continent is not only the stepping stone for new and relevant innovations, but it will also prove to be the basis for this equality.
It is the power of innovation that will eventually change the current practices and economic theories in order to fit the African context and reality. There is no lack of capital; what is missing is real connections with the consumers and users. Look at Financial Institutions for example; their top management consists mainly of white males and their processes of capital dispersion remains westernised. Any credit seeker needs to show it’s creditworthiness, which involves financial history, and is difficult if you are not allowed to have a bank account, to begin with, or if you work in the informal economy.
Living in townships where there are no street names make opening a bank account close to impossible, especially because there is no credit history and no chance of securing the capital. But this, in fact, turned out to be a new invention for startups here – Fintech.
Startups have found a way around these Financial Institutions to source capital. They started making use of crowdfunding and stokvels. People created their own version of transacting, which in turn created a shift in the status quo and opened the door to negotiating change, not just within the country, but the entire continent.
Financial institutions are now realising that they need to change the way they have done business for centuries because failure to do so will result in losing the many opportunities of the growing consumer market, which is already developing new innovations to circumvent the old power structures.
How and why did she get hooked on to the Startup Ecosystem of Africa?
When she had arrived in Cape Town, Europe had just come out of an economic crisis and financial institutions had collapsed; the entire continent was looking inward. Her office, which once had 20 FTE’s, was now reduced to 5 FTEs.
In the meantime, more changes happened in Africa: the population got younger, more educated and well connected. The youth was not ready to accept anything thrown in their direction. They wanted to decide the solutions that they needed for their problems as they had the innovative power, the access to information and the creativity to develop the solutions for local challenges; more so than any aid organization or government in the past.
This was the generation she wanted to engage with, the future leaders of the continent. The moment Bonnie joined her office, she decided to have focussed conversations with the young changemakers here in Cape Town. She chose this group because “young people are rough at the edges, maybe not as nuanced but closer and more in touch with the issues on the ground; less politically correct and often honest and direct,” she said.
She had very in-depth and sometimes painful conversations with them about different topics. What helped her in the entire process was her honesty and ability to open up about her ignorance; ask them questions and want to understand and learn. It is during these dialogue sessions; that the basis of #cocreateSA was established.
Bonnie, a single mother, was assigned as the Consul General to Cape Town five years ago and she wanted to make a difference as a Diplomat in Cape Town. Listening to young decision makers, innovators, creatives helped her understand the challenges better than she had before. The narrative needed to change.
“We are not here to ‘help’ or to tell South Africans what they need. We have seen that that approach has not worked. We are here because we can learn from one other; we both bring our knowledge and expertise to the table and together we can collaborate to solve local challenges…that was how #cocreateSA was born.” She emphasises, “It was my way of educating my Dutch partners.”
For developing this new idea of doing business, the Consul General says, “sometimes putting right people together means that you can catalyse solutions in a better way.”
“I wanted to tell my partners back home, that before you come here and say that you have a solution; just sit down, listen and understand.”
Bonnie exclaims, “everything does not have to be perfect in order for your solution to work.”
During the water crisis in Cape Town, she received dozens of emails from Dutch organisations, who wanted to come and solve the problem. Her reply would often be to not be presumptuous and think that the local startups, government and business have not already thought of these problems and possible solutions.
She firmly believes that in order to solve local problems, you need local expertise at the table and you need to engage with local people. Hence she created #cocreateSA. The initiative has seen five successful years of partnerships. It has opened the door for startups through networking and has seen concrete contracts and JVs.
Along with her #cocreateSA initiative, she has been the face of many other programmes like #InspiringFiftySA, #cocreateBEATS and #cocreateDESIGN FESTIVAL among others.
What does she want to do before she leaves Cape Town?
Bonnie, these days is wholly engrossed in creating a navigator for the startups of the Netherlands in Cape Town. She wants to build a one-stop shop for the Dutch startups interested in scaling their business in an upcoming market. From legal, marketing to Visas in order to handhold startups shoring up to Cape Town.
She ends by saying, “In Europe, we wait for solutions to get perfected before we roll out, at times, making it obsolete even before we begin. But what is interesting in Africa, is that here the people start with basic components and build perfection along their entrepreneurial journey.”
With a glint in her eyes, she adds, “It is like riding in a bus with a defect engine and broken glass, but along the way you will fix it, make it better and most of all, ensure that it is exactly how your customer wants it. The power of that agility and responsiveness to the need is grossly underestimated.”