Red Bull, red eye and runtimes: when MIT’s 24 hour hackathon came to town

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How much caffeine does it take to power a dozen young South African coders and entrepreneurs through a noon-to-noon 24-hour hackathon which they hope will kickstart a new career? Apparently the answer is more than 48 cans: the supply which the MIT representatives organising the event this weekend ran dry by 7pm on Saturday night.

Yet all the developers were still working by the time it came to judging their work 24 hours after they began. In a small side room at JCSE’s headquarters in the Tshimologong Precinct.

This is Global Startup Lab (GSL) Johannesburg, an initiative run by the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and hosted by the University of Witwatersrand. This is the second time GSL has visited Joburg and one of the mentors currently in South Africa, Emele Uka, says that he hopes it will remain an annual event.

“Johannesburg is attractive due it being the most powerful commercial centre on the African continent with a wealth of international companies,” explains Uka, “Also, there are well-regarded universities in the city. Wits is a strong partner, especially with Barry Dwolatsky’s initiative with the Tshimologong Precinct. We think that Johannesburg is an exciting place right now for entrepreneurship.”

GSL itself is a six-week programme that aims to take teams inducted in from nothing to working business complete with signed customers in less than two months. Although it’s being hosted by Wits, the idea has been to get as wide a range as possible of people taking part.

“This year we’ve gone for a mix of participants,” Uka says, “About 50% of them are still studying, and the rest are recent graduates or people from the world of work. We sought varied people with drive and a proven track record of bouncing back from obstacles. We did not seek people with specific domain knowledge because we believe that those who have these attributes and are teachable can pickup the necessary skills to make a business.”

Within the eight teams picked to take part, there’s a huge range of skills and specialisations ranging from marketing to coding. During the final feedback session, a lady wearing a stick on badge that identifies her as Flo tells the judges about how she’s gone from novice to intermediate WordPress and CSS designer over the course of the last 24 hours, while a bearded programmer called Sebastian is praised for sharing his advanced coding abilities with the rest of the group.

“There’s not a team here he didn’t help,” says another colleague, approvingly.

GSL is different to other high pressure incubators in that the focus is very much on an end product. Teams presenting their work here are building prototypes that they’ve already begun commercial negotiations with corporate clients around. One is a smartphone app for checking your electricity balance and finding top-up tills: another is a USSD application for finding nearby medical providers.

“The first two weeks are just about finding customers and doing market research,” explains one of Uka’s US colleagues, Kai Zau,”The hackathon today marks the halfway mark, and kicks off the coding part of the course.”

Mpho Sefalafala, of Born Global Technologies, thinks so much of the GSL programme he wants to emulate it locally on a more regular basis, helping new mobile companies to find their first customers and build their first apps. Sefalafala knows a thing or two about business incubation, after working his way through a variety of careers – including financial services – he found himself on Microsoft’s App Factory intern training scheme last year, where I first met him.

“The problem with many incubators is that they focus on business processes,” says Sefalafala, “So graduates leave with a business plan. But a business plan is not a business – it’s the workshop elements that are important here.”

Sefalafala’s team is building an application which will help manage the maintenance of large logistics fleets, and he’s got one potential customer already lined up – a lead he was aware of from a previous job.

“Programs which are restricted to recent graduates have one major flaw,” Sefalafala says, “Graduates may have confidence and tech skills and be more willing to take risks, but they lack the experience needed to find customers.”

At the end of the feedback session, just before tired participants head off to grab lunch and – presumably – an afternoon snooze, there is a cursory judging and prize giving in which most teams receive voucher prizes for web hosting and Uber rides (the hire car firm is a co-sponsor).

Adam Oxford

Adam Oxford

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar,, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.