Weekend idea

Weekend idea: a thought-provoking book I’m reading [1] made the good point (with data to support) that the more choices we evaluate from a long list, the better our final conclusion, but the LESS HAPPY we are with the final choice. Very relevant for picking a meal from a long menu/UberEats, or a holiday from Airbnb/bookings, or the best book from Amazon, or lots more.

So here’s a suggestion: for your next choice when the answer doesn’t REALLY matter, and there are lots of choices, restrict yourself to finding e.g. FIVE plausible options, and then choose the best from those. And then be happy with the result!

[1] “Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong”, by Eric Barker

Another COVID wave?

Maybe not

Time for a bold take. There won’t be a fourth COVID wave!

We’re exiting the third wave in South Africa, and (depending on how you count) globally too. Most people seem to be expecting another wave in Dec/Jan. I think there’s at least a 50% chance it won’t happen. (Yeah, that’s only 50%, but higher than many people are guessing).

Why? Because waves are driven by variants. Another wave would need a variant that is substantially more infectious than Delta, and/or evades immunity, and/or there is a massive decline in vaccine effectiveness. Some of those happened with Beta, and then Delta, but there’s no sign yet of a similar variant (early days I know). Historically, though, respiratory pandemics (eg 1918 flu) have 1-2 serious variants and that’s it. Plus, the hurdle for a successful breakout variant grows with every vaccination performed.

So it’sm far from certain but let’s put a stake in the ground 🙂

PS. Get vaccinated. COVID can kill outside waves, and we need to keep that hurdle climbing else a fourth wave is much more likely.

More Predictions

It’s time for some more predictions! Last time I did that (My predictions for the next 10, 20, 30 years) I was, if anything, too conservative Although, the section of “Black Swans” at the bottom was particularly accurate… (and has NOT been edited since it was written).

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

So here goes! Where do I think common opinion is wrong, especially in South Africa?

Electric vehicles and renewables

  1. By 2030, 40%+ of new cars sold in South Africa will be pure electric, with East Africa (eg Kenya) a bit behind, and West Africa a bit further behind. This seems inevitable when looking at the promises from major Western car companies, and the pace of innovation and falling prices from Chinese car companies.
  2. Due to 1., by 2030 the demand for petrol in South Africa will be falling 3%+ per year; and electricity demand will be growing 1% per year due to electric cars (though it may be falling for other reasons).
  3. Despite decarbonisation of electricity, and the growth of electric cars, the price of electricity in major global markets will NOT rise significantly from today’s levels, and may even fall, due to rapid rollout of solar and other renewables. South Africa is a special case depending on Eskom’s finances.
  4. By 2030, there will be large businesses built on taking advantage of near-free electricity during sunny hours (e.g., bulk hydrogen production), in several global markets.
  5. There will never again be a major (>300MW) coal power station built in South Africa.
  6. Kusile coal power-station will stop operating (or at least have been converted off coal) well before 30 years (2050), despite a design lifetime of 50+ years (around 2070). Which means an even bigger disaster for its return on capital.

Consumer trends over next 10-15 years

  1. The distinction between FMCG company / “brand” (designs and coordinates the manufacture of products, high margins, high marketing spend %, little direct consumer interaction) and retailer (sells products from brands, low margin, high volume,  low marketing spend %) will continue to blur in both directions, to an effective spectrum; plus there will be new logistics business models beyond traditional retailers, that aggregate deliveries from multiple other players (i.e., Instacart model evolved further).
  2. Traditional monolithic brands will fragment in favour of increasing numbers of niche brands with more authenticity and story. New “meta-brands” will appear, in the form of structured ranges of endorsements by influencers.
  3.  By 2030, 20%+ of “meat-like” products sold in upper-end grocery stores will be plant-based (i.e., non-animal).
  4.  By 2035, we will routinely take individualised medical probiotics in order to tune our gut biota, as treatment for a wide variety of complaints.

Finance

  1. By 2035, it will be functionally impossible for “legitimate” companies and individuals to use tax havens and financial engineering to pay near-zero taxes on profits or income.
  2. There are fortunes that will still be made in simplifying the payment of paper (or PDF) invoices, using machine learning text recognition to automatically load payment requests via bank apps/APIs. This will happen far faster than we can persuade people to stop using paper-based invoices for billing.

The July 2021 Riots

A thought to ponder

My enduring image of the 2021 looting will not be empty shelves or burning warehouses, but a short video of a boy, maybe 10 years old, carrying a MrPrice bag. He’d been stopped by a passer-by who went through his bag. It had a t-shirt or two, a pair of tekkie shoes, one 5-pack of underwear, and one or two other things, neatly folded away.

It didn’t have toys. Or flatscreen TVs. Or even food.

It had a few clothes, and a single pack of new underwear.

The bag was closed again, and he went on his way, in the grimy and thin clothes he was wearing, into a Johannesburg winter night that was at about freezing point.

There are many things to be said about attempted coups, and factional battles, and senseless vandalism, and the desperation of yet another COVID lockdown, and a terribly slow police response, and the community response that showed the best and sometimes the worst of us, and about how the ultimate victims of the looting are almost entirely going to be the people who can least afford it. And it’s all true and important, but also … not really anything new. It’s just where we are, the unsurprising result of the last few years, and also the last few decades, and also the last few centuries, as we take steps forwards and backwards.

But when the sun comes up in the morning, we need to get up, and put down our social media feeds, and get back to work. Cleaning up, building, teaching, healing, starting businesses, spending tax money responsibly, serving customers, processing paperwork, even sending emails. Because doing those things better is the only way I can think of that we can gradually build a society that is good enough for us all.

Not (just) so that looting doesn’t happen, but so that a 10-year-old child doesn’t need an outbreak of looting to get a new set of underwear.

Why does the start up industry beat corporates?


We seem to have, today, an unparalleled explosion in young, new companies, pioneering new products or ways of doing business, and thereby disrupting seemingly invincible pillars of our economy through explosive growth — commonly called startups. How is this possible?

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Startups face a seemingly impossible challenge: they seek to build successful businesses from nothing. To do so, they need products that are so much better than alternatives that customers choose to use the new products, despite the lack of any brand recognition. These products need to be built on a shoe-string budget (at least initially), and quickly, by a team of founders that are working with limited resources, limited structures and few established commercial relationships. How can this ever work? Why don’t bigger companies, with access to all the same new technologies, lots of resources and skilled staff, a brand, and sales and marketing teams, win every time?

The answer often comes down to two things: startups have a completely crazy idea that actually works, and/or they are unreasonably good at something.

Continue reading “Why does the start up industry beat corporates?”

Thoughts: Lockdown

End of month one of lockdown: some thoughts as someone lucky enough to still be getting a salary.

Following the president’s example, I’ve donated a third of my April salary. Everyone’s choices of where to donate will differ, here were mine:

  • First priority was Silvertree staff (and ex-staff, in companies that have had to shut down). This month, between UIF and crowdfunding, everyone received a salary
  • I didn’t donate to Solidarity Fund this month, as (right now at least) we seem to have enough PPE, which seems to be their main focus
  • Next, I tried to donate or buy vouchers at restaurants+coffee shops I usually support. Not yet easy! Hopefully, initiatives like https://www.saveyourlocal.co.za/ will help
  • Lastly, I focused on NGOs that I know and that have established infrastructure to reach people that are hungry. This month, that included Thembisa Feeding Scheme, Streetlight Schools (https://www.streetlightschools.org/donate) and Gift of the Givers (https://giftofthegivers.org/make-a-difference/)
  • Economically, our problem is that the velocity of cash has dramatically slowed, as people can’t spend due to lockdown. This is causing a demand-side slump. So, your duty if you have cash: spend as you would have previously, and if you can’t, donate!

[Let me know your great ideas for causes to donate to!]

My predictions for the next 10, 20, 30 years

The latest in my once-every-two-years blog posts — oops. Over the New Year, I thought I’d make some predictions for the longer term. I’m looking forward to laughing at them in 2025, 2035 and 2045!


EDIT: some typos fixed

2025 (10 years time)

  • Physical signatures on paper will start becoming less common, replaced with electronic signatures and third-party document management systems. Over the next few years, security breaches or failures of some of these companies will lead to greater regulation of the industry. The result will eventually look similar to the credit rating agency or stock exchange industries of 2014 – several private companies running businesses in an industry heavily shapen by and working alongside regulatory agencies.
     
  • Hipster becomes accepted mainstream, as the desire for possession of mass-produced physical items is increasingly replaced with the quest for experience and “story” via artisanal and niche products. An increasing share of these products are virtual. Provision of these products and services will avoid massive unemployment, despite continuing decline in jobs in many of the careers that provided employment in 2014.
     
  • The global call-centre industry will finally peak (at a massive size), as new generations prefer to interact with computers and search for answers online. Content writing for helpdesks and forums will be the new outsourced growth industry, though it will not create as many jobs as the call centre industry.

2035 (20 years time)

  • As had happened to chess by 2014, computers will be unmistakably better than humans at “hard” AI problems from early 2000s, e.g., face recognition, speech recognition, “discovery” (reading and finding relevant content in huge troves of documents), medical diagnosis. However, AI will not be much closer to human-level consciousness, as we increasingly discover consciousness is not a single brain system, but rather an emergent property of many finely-balanced subsystems in our brains, built by our evolutionary past, that are very hard to abstract away from our brain structure. That is, computers won’t be “conscious” because we discover our “consciousness” is an increasingly slippery and less-generalisable concept than we had imagined.
     
  • More than 75% percent of seafood will be farmed rather than wild-caught. The exceptions will be either very high-end (and the target of growing environmentalist critiscism) or low-end. Farmed fish breeds will look and behave increasingly different to their wild ancestors.
     
  • The car industry will be in trouble as individual car ownership becomes less common. In advanced economies, shared self-driving cars summoned by smartphone are the default for many people. The only healthy parts of the industry are high-end luxury cars, low-end cars for emerging markets (though massive congestion is pushing public opinion away from car ownership here too), and self-driving electric cars designed for sharing.
     
  • Road congestion in advanced economy cities will be much reduced compared to 2014 (as happened to air pollution in these cities in a previous era, e.g., London after 1800s and LA after 1960s). This will be due to reduced private car use, but more so to self-driving cars and much better traffic management (traffic lights, automatic car re-routing).

2045 (30 years time)

  • CO2 emissions will be steadily falling, with global temperatures on track for a 3.5 degree rise. Agriculture will be steady, thanks to most of the world’s famers using genetically modified crops. Widespread but localised wars and revolutions will have happened, all with political proximate causes but with incidence strongly correlated with areas of greatest climate disruption. Large movements of people will also have occurred, leading to dramatic pro- and anti-immigrant upheavals, but these migrants will be largely described as economic- rather than climate-driven.
     
  • The dominant socio-economic issue will no longer be poverty and financial inequality as measued by Gini coefficient and similar, as this will be superseded by inequality in duration and quality of life. Improved medical technology will leave the top 1% with an expected lifetime almost double that of the bottom 50%, and much better quality of life in the meantime. The advantages of expensive biotech will threaten the assumption that all are born equal, as the offspring of the wealthiest gain developmental advantages, and society faces the danger of a biologically entrenched upper class.
     
  • The tertiary or “services” sector will employ nearly all workers, with industry following agriculture to become virtually irrelevant in formal employment. Production of physical goods will have followed energy use, to be largely uncorrelated with GDP, as non-physical goods become the bulk of GDP by value. Economists will split services into subsectors, such as traded services (finance, media and content) and non-traded services (hospitality, experiences, personal services).
     
  • First steps will be taken to in some countries to ban human drivers on certain roads (e.g., long distance highways), for safety reasons. These will be very controversial, pitting clear evidence of massive reductions in death toll due to self-driving cars, versus people’s right to drive themselves, and the rights of those who don’t yet own self-driving cars.

Black swans (that could make the above invalid)

  • Global pandemic of an easy to catch, slow to incubate but deadly virus. Might be caused by rogue biotech labs
     
  • War between super-powers

What do you think?

Micrologistics and the need for transport in Africa

‘Micrologistics’ is my name for a new approach to transport of goods in small loads, using mobile phones to provide the trust and tracking required to create an effective transport network out of existing vehicles. Below some thoughts on why I think small-scale logistics is a real problem in Africa, what the underlying challenge is, and a possible solution. I think Africa is ready for a new model of small-scale, bottom-of-the-pyramid logistics – for a ‘micrologistics’ revolution.
Continue reading “Micrologistics and the need for transport in Africa”

“Africa at work” report finally published

The report I’ve spent quite a few months working on has been published — Africa at work: Job creation and inclusive growth. We look at the state of employment in Africa, and what needs to be done to create more wage-paying jobs. It’s awesome to see it getting lots of media attention, but also just good to get it out — it was a lot of work!

In other news, Claire and I are back in Johannesburg after a great year in London and a month of travel in Europe. I’m on a leave of absence for another month or so, still enjoying a more relaxed life!

Bureaucracy: some good and bad

I’ve had some excellent examples of how completely differently bureaucracy can be managed by different organisations. Be warned: rants below. And raves.

Cellphones 1: Vodacom
I wanted to change my Vodacom account from a contract “Top-up 315s” package (which costs R315 a month (around $38), but rolls-over whatever you don’t use in airtime), to a prepaid account, which costs nothing a month, but has slightly higher call costs. I’m doing this because I’m not spending anywhere near the R315 a month, and will spend less now I have a company phone, so it was a waste.

So I called, with not much hope — I mean, I was asking for a contract to be cancelled, but to keep my number AND my chunk of unused airtime. But within minutes it was all done, and I received confirmation SMSs from the system while I was still talking to the representative. Congrats Vodacom!

Cellphones 2: Verizon
Got another Verizon bill today. This is from the 11 days or so of cellphone service I used from them back in June. Every bill I get tells a completely different story, that bears little relation to reality or the previous bill. This one was no exception: a bill for $174ish (or around $16 a day of use), due largely to an early termination fee. Now, I cancelled within 30 days, so there should be no termination fee — but more importantly, I didn’t even sign up for a contract that had a term that could be early terminated!! Fools!! Oh joy, another night on Skype to look forward to, fighting with their “customer service” reps.

Tax 1: South African Revenue Service
Unbelievable. The new filing system is fantastic. A simple website, where most of your return is already completed based on the data they have from employer, and you just have to confirm or add in any additional deductions (I’ve been paying my own health insurance). Not only that, from clicking the “submit” button, my refund was in my bank account within two days. Nice one, SARS!

Tax 2: Internal Revenue Service (USA) and Fulbright/Grantax
After spending the customary full day of finding forms, filling them in, attaching copies, etc., and finally posting them (snail mail), since that’s for some bizarre reason cheaper than e-filing, I’ve just been informed that my return was wrong. Yes, despite not receiving any income from Fulbright for years now, apparently an airplane ticket they bought me last year, to return to South Africa, should have counted as income, and so my return should have been routed through Fulbright’s tax services (Grantax). Nevermind that the cost of the ticket never went through me, or indeed that I didn’t ever know how much it even cost. This also means that I’m supposed to pay tax on a supposedly “free” ticket. And, of course, deduce these facts through the power of mind-reading.

This all arose because the IRS sent my refund check to Grantax instead of into my bank account, like my return requested. I haven’t used Grantax in years, and spent literally DAYS last year trying to find out from IRS how to somehow remove the Grantax power of attorney from my tax account. Wasted days, as I was never able to find a single human from IRS anywhere to talk to — or anything relevant online.

Bonus rant: Telkom
I had DSL Internet from Telkom for two days, on and off, as they kept cancelling it for reasons known best (if at all) to them. Still trying to sort out ludicrous billing. Top tip for Telkom: speak to Vodacom or SARS.


Phew! I feel better after that rant. Back to work — starting the new job at the end of the week, and there’s lots to get done before then. But I’m off to Austria for some training on Saturday, which should be great!