Cape Town seeks to position itself as a remote work destination

Wesgro – the tourism, trade and investment promotion agency for Cape Town and the Western Cape province – recently launched a campaign to promote Cape Town as a remote work destination. How we made it in Africa asked Jean Scheltema, head of marketing and communications at Wesgro, about the city’s strengths as a remote work location as well as the impact that an increase in digital nomads will have on the local economy.

Give us the background to this initiative.

The Covid-19 pandemic, combined with advances in communication technology, has brought forward the blurring of work, leisure, home, and travel. As the nature of work evolves, and the number of long-term remote workers continues to rise globally, the number of digital nomads will continue to grow. One study looking at the nexus of remote working and travel mobility mentions how a Google search on ‘digital nomads’ in September 2020 generated 5,700,000 generic results, up from 1,300,000 generic results in January 2019.

Traditionally, digital nomads have been employed as freelancers, travel bloggers, or independent internet entrepreneurs in tech-supported fields, but this has changed. It is now becoming more common in a range of other roles and sectors, including many traditionally office-bound jobs like legal and finance.

As South Africans catch onto the global trend and take advantage of the flexibility that working from anywhere brings, Wesgro, in partnership with Western Cape Government, saw the potential to really capitalise on this new category of long-stay visitors. As such, the first burst of the remote work campaign was launched in March with AirBnb – encouraging both traditional (hotels) and non-traditional (homeowners) accommodation providers to register on the platform and offer favourable rates to long-stay visitors. Deepening this effort, we launched a dedicated remote work portal in June, and building on from this, the recent ‘Pretty Convincing’ campaign (watch video below) was conceptualised.

Are you targeting South African or international remote workers?

The domestic market is our target for now, with a particular focus on Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces. By positioning the destination for the local audience, we are building strong proof points for the international market.

Which industries do you seek to attract?

Given the robust telecom infrastructure constituting 1,095km of fibre cables in the city, we’re looking to attract founders of technology companies that are looking to expand operations in Africa.

We’re already seeing interest from businesses in fintech, and hope to soon see an uptick from edtech businesses, as this too is a thriving ecosystem for the Cape with capacity to support more role players.

Furthermore, having launched our ambition in health-tech, we’d like to see more digital nomads working and collaborating closely with key local ecosystem members and our universities.

Describe Cape Town’s biggest strengths as a remote work location.

  • Co-working spaces. We have the highest number of co-working spaces in Africa. There are over 30 co-working spaces and 715 free wifi spots in the city of Cape Town alone with further options in the Western Cape.
  • Connectivity. We have one of the largest open fibre networks in Africa, and our province is the most energy-secure in the country.
  • Ecosystem and networks. We have a well-developed community of local and international entrepreneurs. You’ll hear many languages being spoken in a large range of coffee shops.
  • Tech capital of Africa. With 450 tech firms employing more than 40,000 people, the Cape Town-Stellenbosch tech ecosystem is bigger than Lagos and Nairobi combined.

Name the challenges Cape Town needs to overcome to attract more remote workers.

Our oceans are quite chilly… Jokes aside, there really is very little barrier to entry for the local market and we hope to see more friends from neighbouring provinces take up the opportunity to work from our breathtaking destination.

Do you have any figures for the number of remote workers who have relocated to Cape Town over the past 18 months?

We don’t have numbers to share here yet.

What downstream impacts will an influx of remote workers have on the Cape Town economy?

Remote workers not only spend money on daily necessities for the duration of their visit, but they also spend on tourism activities and excursions. This means that their presence has a significant impact across large areas of the economy. Remote workers spend money on, for example, accommodation, restaurants, groceries, working space, telecommunications, transport, retail, leisure and attractions.

There is in particular an opportunity for rural areas and local economies to benefit from remote workers. In addition, there are knock-on positives for investment. Remote workers would likely see opportunities for investing in the Western Cape. The ultimate ambition of the remote working campaign is to realise more companies opening up in the Western Cape, which will positively impact local job creation.

In the short term, as we wait for our international tourism numbers to recover, remote working sustains the local hospitality industry from restaurants and cafes to theatres and co-working spaces. In 2019, tourism as a whole added ZAR 15 billion (USD 946 million) to the Western Cape economy and this number has the potential to increase.

From a collaboration perspective, innovation ecosystems exist through building networks where new business models and partnerships can form. Increasing opportunities for these networks to happen facilitates the growth of new innovations and thus results in further job creation. Additionally, such an expansion of our ecosystem cements us as a leading tech hub on the continent.