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October 12, 2012 8:32 pm
Alan Knott-Craig Jr, chief executive of South African social media company Mxit, has a fascination with magic. The 35-year-old senses it in the mountains surrounding his home in the historic university town of Stellenbosch (“I wonder if it’s a coincidence that the range is called the Drakenstein – Dragon Stone – dragons being the ultimate creatures of magic”) and in his business.
Since buying Mxit in 2011, Knott- Craig and his group management team, “the council of wizards”, have developed the communications platform for mobile phones, which now moves 750m messages a day, and a system to enable Africa’s 581m mobile phone users to make electronic payments and money transfers.
Sitting in his backyard on an unseasonably warm and sunny winter morning, Knott-Craig enjoys a perfect view over mature vineyards that rise in the distance from the banks of the Blaauwklippen River. His home is one of 430 contemporary Cape Dutch units in a new development that resulted from the merger of three vineyards.
“Anywhere is better than my hometown of Pretoria. But this is paradise,” he says. Knott-Craig is keen to talk about the positive direction his life has taken since moving to the town from Johannesburg two-and-a-half years ago.
One of the simple pleasures Knott-Craig enjoys is walking along Church Street, where town and gown mingle freely. “You will bump into academics, artists, students, dreamers, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs. They all live here and make time for each other.” During one chance encounter with the mayor, Knott-Craig hatched an agreement to launch free WiFi in Stellenbosch. “Next thing you know, boom, we’re living in Africa’s first wireless town.”
Knott-Craig expects this initiative to help bridge the economic divide in this stratified community. Schools in Stellenbosch’s disadvantaged areas have embraced free WiFi since it was introduced in April. He hopes this will accelerate the development of a more entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Mxit’s mantra is to “help more Africans make more money”. The company already sells gaming apps developed by local residents to Mxit’s 10m most active users. Locals have also helped to develop some of the 187 free “social impact” apps available through Mxit, designed to improve people’s access to healthcare, security, education and civil rights. “This university town fosters a genuine interest in ideas and academic inquiry that’s not linked to profit motive. I think it’s had a profoundly positive effect on the thinking of entrepreneurs in the area,” he says.
While Knott-Craig speaks with excitement about the prospect of increasing the financial fortunes of his company by introducing new mobile payment applications, he sounds even more fired up when talking about the potential to build on Mxit’s track record of social engagement. He recently published a book, Mobinomics, which outlines his vision for using mobile technology and social media to make government more responsive and accountable to Africans across socioeconomic classes.
“Many people are coming forward to join forces with us after reading the book,” he says. The company already works with a range of partners – including reformed gangsters, professors, presidential advisers and paediatricians – to use the mobile platform as a force for change. Knott-Craig seems to believe the slogan on his T-shirt: “You are the Revolution”.
Before coming to Stellenbosch, Knott-Craig ran Johannesburg-based broadband company iBurst. “When you live in Joburg you rarely bump into people. It’s tricky having a quick chat with someone you’re passing on the N1 while travelling at 130 kilometres an hour. My life there was all about faster and richer. I got caught up in the Johannesburg trap of thinking that money measured success. I let work get in the way of more important things, like family.”
In mid-2009, he and his wife Sibella decided to leave their cluster home in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs and move to her hometown. “We needed a quiet space where we could work on our marriage,” he says. “We bought this house sight unseen. My mother-in-law, a long-time Stellenbosch resident, looked around for a property for us after we announced that we were moving down here. When she insisted she had found us the perfect home, we made an immediate offer. When we got down to visit the property a few weeks later, we loved the whole vibe.”
His time in Johannesburg has not been forgotten, though. An enormous mixed-media painting of the city’s skyline hangs in the double-height entranceway of their open-plan home. The other walls show the marked shift in Knott-Craig’s priorities, being dominated by family photos. He says the family-friendly values prevalent in Stellenbosch made it the perfect place to reform his workaholic ways, and he has since subscribed to three rules to ensure a work-life balance. They are: no working after 6pm; no working on Sundays; and no travelling for more than seven consecutive nights. He says spending more time with his wife and daughters, one-year-old Tara and four-year-old Juliet, has helped him to think more clearly about his long-term business priorities.
Knott-Craig acknowledges that his devotion to his wife and children partly stems from what he observed when his parents worked as caretakers at a foster home in Pretoria. “If kids don’t get love when they’re young, then they’re damaged goods.” Knott-Craig’s parents worked at the Louis Botha Home for extra income, while his father’s day job was tinkering with the South African Post Office’s first generation of computers.
The tenacity and single-minded determination that enabled his father, Alan Knott-Craig Sr, to move from a low-paid civil service job to become the founding chief executive at Vodacom, one of the first two mobile operators licensed in South Africa, came at a high personal cost, he says.
Although his father encouraged his sons to pursue a different path, Knott-Craig Jr qualified as a chartered accountant with Deloitte and worked briefly in New York, before following his father into the fast-changing mobile telecommunications industry. Knott-Craig has benefited from sharing a name with one of South Africa’s most admired telecom executives, but he says he has worked hard to forge his own way.
A desire to extend the positive social impact of Mxit motivates him to open his Stellenbosch home to people he met through the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders Programme. A Ghanaian entrepreneur in mobile health, responsible for using mobile phones to combat counterfeit medications, and “the number five person” at Yahoo are due to visit him the weekend following this interview. Knott-Craig’s success in attracting other entrepreneurs and investors to Stellenbosch has already influenced the area, and could help transform a quaint college town into the heart of Africa’s new “Silicon Valley”.
Knott-Craig nominates his bookshelf as his favourite thing.
“I gave up gaming because it was too addictive,” he says. Instead, he enjoys the escapism of books such as A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin. “My avatar on Mxit is a dragon inspired by Dany the Queen of the Dragons.”
When he moved to his current home he purchased box sets of his favourite childhood book series, such as Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Franklin W Dixon’s The Hardy Boys.
Bookshelves line the landing and his home office – and the wallpaper in the guest lavatory even has a faux bookshelf design.
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