6(ish) biggest opportunities facing Cape Town (and the region)

7 min readMar 25, 2021

I recently wrote a piece about the 7 biggest threats to Cape Town and the region.

Here’s a view on the 5+ biggest opportunities:

  • Berry bonanza (an increasingly diverse and sophisticated agricultural economy)
  • Community Action Networks
  • Micro-developers (and the next frontier: mixed-use)
  • Fundamentally, we’re still attractive
  • Transition and crisis leaders
  • Plus a few almost-there-but-not-quite

(But 5+ isn’t 7! Its quality not quantity. Plus, Medium stats say ya’ll don’t read my longer posts).

1. Berry bonanza

Ok, I stole this title from Cape Talk.

Agriculture has for a long time been our regional strength, and there’s no reason to be shy about this as a “primary” sector. The way we farm today is more and more sophisticated — making use of less and less land (which is good for the impact on the environment), and making use of more and more technologies and skills sets.

Between blue berries, almonds, citrus, and the emerging cannabinoids economy (where I live, in Paarl, there as emerging cluster of cannabis processors), I’m pretty excited.

Of course, agriculture is a sector that is traditionally, erm, white at the top, white in supply chains, and coloured and black in the lowest-paid categories.

When we talk about transformation in this space, it has to go far beyond just the land debate — and into the skills and innovation of crop protection, agri-tech, processing, logistics and export, research and science and all the other clusters that are very-much-not primary sector, but adjacent to agriculture.

These are the fields that offer pathways into more complex* fields, products and services. By ensuring that we are focusing on transformation and skills development, and investment in R&D in these spaces, we will maximize our chances of pathways into a range of other adjacent non-agricultural products and services (pharmaceuticals, precision equipment, fabrics, etc).

Example of a pathway from agriculture to more complex products (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048733320300287)

*Economic complexity theory assumes that economic development occurs by moving from more “simple” and “primary” products and services, to more “complex” ones. Its an alternative to the traditional “comparative advantage” approach to economic development.

2. Community Action Networks

A lot has been written about these networks that emerged under the collective banner of “Cape Town Together”.

Each one is different in the issues it focuses on, the flavour of the engagements, the intensity, pace and scale. And each one is the same in the agility, consciousness and resistance to Politics with a big P.

When writing the 7 biggest threats, an unease I felt was that the “negativity” didn’t properly represent what I feel when I am engaging face to face (mask on!) with other Capetonians. Mostly, people want things to work. Mostly, people are helpful and generous and cautious, or at the very, least, just getting on with it.

The CANs represent the ability of people to self-organise, identify community needs, pool resources and direct those resources towards need and opportunity.

Resilience is embedded in our ability to build relationships, to connect across difference, to know our neighbours.

Having said that, we must be cautious not to transfer ever increasing burdens onto already vulnerable communities and individuals. Resilience is not an honour badge and it doesn’t pay the rent.

Cape Town has a history of placing “social entrepreneurs” on stages and in the limelight, without properly recognising hardship and the lack of resources available. Sometimes, what people and community need is tangible resources and support and hard infrastructure.

3. Micro-developers

No, not micro-apartments in Sea Point.

Call it backyarding v.20”, in the Cape Flats. Enabled by progressive planning policies that allow for 2nd and 3rd dwellings as of right, and simplified processes to apply for small blocks of apartments, the “townships” (at what point do they just become suburbs?) are densifying in a formal way.

There is an emerging class of property developer, and landlord (in some cases enabled by innovative financiers, such as BitProp).

This is “township development”. Its income-generating, and placemaking and housing-creating.

A constraint is infrastructure — the City needs to put its money where its SDF and planning approvals are.

The next frontier is mixed-use zoning, and developers responding with mixed-use developments. Ground floor businesses for the townships, please!

Entrepreneurs are desperate for appropriately zoned business premises. They are constantly harassed by law enforcement for trading where “they shouldn’t be”, or paying exorbitant rents for the few legitimate spaces that do exist; including the so-called “economic hubs”, which are City-owned spaces that are operated by self-appointed local “leaders”. If we want entrepreneurship and small businesses to be a pathway out of poverty, lets zone accordingly. A create places that are no longer just “dormitories”.

Young female entrepreneurs and their pizza — sit down or delivery. The sad fact is, I want to tell you all to visit, but am also scared that if I do, law enforcement will go there. What bs is that. There’s no business zoned space in this area.

Planners working on the next round of RDP projects should also be considering this trend. If the day you hand that key over, the beneficiary partners with a developer, and densifies the site, was it worthwhile state expenditure? This is not an unrealistic scenario (reference: building applications at Forest Village). It is time to radically re-think housing, in partnership with the market.

4. Fundamentally, we’re still attractive

All that stuff about natural beauty, cultural interest, competitive advantage is still true.

Despite locals’ horror every time we win an award as the “best” something or other, Tourists keep loving Cape Town (of course, vaccines will help re-ignite this…). There are so many more opportunities to use tourism to catalyse new economic sectors — especially now with the thin edge of the wedge of “remote working”.

I wrote about the concept of “know how tourism” (and admittedly applied it to the relatively frivolous idea of vegan chefing) back in 2017. Perhaps with the accelerator of a pandemic, its time has come, and better applied to sectors where we really want to grow?

Apart from tourism, we are still attracting investments. There are lots of examples of this. The spend to expand the airport, the new airport, new research centres anchoring developments, investments in Atlantis SEZ, and I have a few ideas of my own (watch this space).

Amazon are building data centres and energy to power them. Which is an intriguing adjacency to independent power grids. And, separately, expanding their call centre and AWS business at a rapid speed. Of course, we should learn from other cities and not just welcome this investment blindly — while the do “create jobs”, their impact in other cities has been to drive up the cost of living (one of the biggest threats I identified). Who is sitting down with them to have this frank conversation, before its too late? In my piece on 7 biggest threats, I challenged us to stop putting the gloss forward, and centre our challenges. Let’s ask them be our partners in real terms.

5. Leadership through crisis and change

This one might surprise some people, and result in a few rotten tomatoes (or poo) thrown my way. I’m not shy to use my citizen voice and point out areas where I think leaders can be doing better.

But I also don’t have an agenda or bias. There are a lot of really good things happening, and we’ve had some really good successes in really complex, trying times.

I’m a huge fan of the City’s Resilience Strategy, which was developed with substantial input from across society, and think that despite some terrible, costly and just f*n stupid decisions (like Strandfontein, made even worse by stubborn court cases), overall the Covid response has been remarkable given the enormity of the challenge and how much worse it could have been.

Without a doubt there have been economic, humanitarian and health impacts of the pandemic. But we have successfully avoided overflowing hospitals clinics and mortuaries and, while there were a few hiccup here and there, largely kept service delivery going. Not all cities can say the same. This wasn’t luck or accident.

Other places I see leadership that deserves cheerleading, and the crowding in of support of the private sector and active citizens, is the City’s numerous climate change related strategies and policies, inclusive economic growth strategy, data strategy, green infrastructure strategy and environmental resource management strategies.

Sometimes these leaders (distributed throughout the institution) are hiding away from citizens and businesses, either deliberately, out of fear, because they’ve been told to, or because they’ve been inside the system for so long they’ve forgotten there’s a world outside.

I’d love to see more citizens engaging with their documents when they go out to public comment or are presented at the various portfolio committees (you can follow their calendars and access documents and presentations online), requesting presentations via ward committees and business forums, and

I think there could be more here — are we on the cusp of hybrid models of energy access? I’m not quite sold —municipal financials model hold us back from fully exploring all the opportunities here.

Could rail (and all that land, and a fundamentally new model of asset/land based finance, and much more affordable services) be devolved? It requires a little more coordination than I’ve seen signs to be optimistic about just yet.

Are there any positive technology disruptors about to change everything? I’m not sure we’ve really got a good track record in terms of ensuring that the negative impacts of disruption are properly managed through the levers we do have (think about the impacts of thousands of delivery bikes on pavements, or the impacts of “not-employed” app-drivers rights, or the impacts of AirBnB on property prices). All of these disruptors have undoubtedly brought positive change, but without a sophisticated framework to regulate, enable, partner, or re-direct to ensure they’re properly aligned to our broader goals as City, I can’t yet call them an outright opportunity.

What do you think?




Archive of thoughts. Imperfect, incomplete and not assumed to be my final position. My actions speak louder than my words. Learn more: https://jodi.city