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TLDR: 

We are exploring the feasibility of establishing an EA community office in Cape Town, South Africa. Building an EA hub office, in addition to employing full-time community builders and researchers in Africa, will allow for a major acceleration of community building on the continent. Additionally, an office in South Africa would allow EAs from northern hemisphere countries to work remotely in a much nicer environment with more sunlight during their winter months. If you’re interested in participating in this project, please fill in this form

Background

There are a couple of projects within the EA community planning on opening more offices around the world, in the style of Trajan House in Oxford, and Lightcone and Constellation in Berkeley. These offices provide an optimized working environment for EA professionals, and occasionally for independent EAs moving transiently through those cities who are in need of a place to work. We believe that the case for co-working offices as impact multipliers is already quite strong. However, all of these offices are in the northern hemisphere, which is suboptimal because 1) it means there’s no EA co-working spaces for EAs in Africa, Asia, South America, and Australia and 2) when it's winter in the northern hemisphere, it is winter for everyone who works in an EA hub or office

The Plan

We want to run a pilot project/MVP to assess the potential value of this. There are a number of co-working office spaces available for short term rental in Cape Town. We can rent an office (for ~25 people) to use as a co-working space for EAs from around the world [prioritized if they live in 1) an LMIC without an EA hub city or office or 2) a cold dark place… physically]. Although creating a purpose-built space is more ideal in the long run, renting a co-working space for 6 months is a relatively cheap way to test the potential impact of this idea. We may also look into helping EAs find shared housing near the office.

If this project is successful, we believe that EAs from Africa and perhaps other LMICs will have access to a much more engaging community, thus increasing their feelings of cohesion with the movement. We also would like to see EAs from the northern hemisphere experience an improvement in quality of life during their stay[1]. Since many EAs have the permanent opportunity to work remotely, we need not constrain ourselves to the dark and cold cities in which many EAs live between October and March. 

We think it’s important that we don’t try to start new EA hubs arbitrarily. As such, we’d like to see very robust reasons for establishing something like this long term in Cape Town before putting significant resources towards it.

A vision for the future

It is 2035. There is a 75-100 person EA hub office in Cape Town CBD. The space is shared by full-time EAs, based in Cape Town, working on global health and wellbeing, animal welfare advocates, AI and biosecurity researchers, and community builders, including from EA for Muslims and EA for Christians[2]. There is a large space in the office which is used for outreach and programming by the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University EA groups, and there are members of the greater African EA community working full time in the office for 6 months at a time on visiting fellowships. The office hosts regular African EA Summits, as well as talks by scholars. Between October and February every year, the office doubles in occupancy as EAs from the US, UK, and Europe come to work in Cape Town - some stay at the EA house down the road from the office.

Why Cape Town? 

As anyone who’s been to Cape Town will attest, it is a top tier city. It has great weather and a good food scene with a strong plant-based culture. The people are friendly and range from a diverse set of backgrounds and there is world-class infrastructure in the developed parts of the city. Cape Town boasts many exciting outdoor activities such as hiking, surfing, beach volleyball, cycling and rock climbing[3]. Capetonians enjoy an outdoor and leisure-focused lifestyle in a beautiful setting (see the image attached). 

Cape Town is also Africa’s top tech-start-up city, having been the only African city on Savills Tech Cities Index. In addition, there are many people and organizations working in exciting EA-aligned industries, such as global health and wellbeing (JPAL Africa has an office here), AI research (InstaDeep, and 39 other startups), alt-proteins (Mzansi Meat Co., De Novo Dairy) and animal welfare (Animal Advocacy Africa). Cape Town is home to two of Africa’s top universities. It also has an international airport and is a close connection (~1.5 hour flight) to Africa’s busiest airport (ORT in Johannesburg). It’s worth mentioning as well that the cost of living is significantly lower than cities like London and San Francisco.

Cape Town coastline

We understand there may be some concern about the safety and infrastructure in a South African city. We can note some things to alleviate these concerns:

  • Cape Town is generally considered the best managed municipal area in South Africa
  • Although there are occasionally short power outages, office spaces and many homes will have backup power. WeWork, for example, has an uninterrupted power supply.
  • Crime statistics for the area can appear concerning. However, the crime is mostly  isolated to lower income areas and your likelihood of exposure to crime is significantly  less in higher income areas

What next?

Assessing interest and getting input from the community is the most important next step in this project. You can help us by filling in the expression of interest form if you think you would benefit from spending time in this office. If you have any questions or suggestions, please leave a comment or send an email to: jordanpieters[at]gmail[dot]com.


Acknowledgements

Thanks to Kaleem Ahmid for engaging in dialogue throughout the development of this idea (in his capacity as the EA UCT UGAP mentor prior to his employment at CEA) and for providing feedback on the final draft. Thanks as well to Jonathan Michel, Rob Gledhill and Jesse Rothman for their feedback.

  1. ^

    Many EAs who we have interacted with from places like New England, Scandinavia, and the UK have mentioned many times that they find themselves suffering from seasonal affective disorder during the winter, which affects their ability to maintain productivity work-wise, and has lots of bad non-work effects.

  2. ^

    We mention this specifically because we posit that religious compatibility with EA is going to play a much more pivotal role with regards to growing the EA community in Africa, compared to the US, UK or Europe which have significantly higher rates of atheism than African countries.

  3. ^

    Jordan likes rock climbing a lot and will show you all the cool spots

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Some very belated updates on this project:

In case it's not obvious, we didn't end up running this. There were a couple of reasons for that:

  1. I personally didn't have the capacity to run a project of this size. Other residencies I attended required multiple staff members to run well
  2. The Mexico EA Fellowship was targeting roughly the same demographic and happening at the same time. I didn't want to create competition for this and I think they had an advantage anyway (a more established LatAm community, coinciding with a local EAGx, and a strong team)

I probably wouldn't consider running it now:

  • Obviously, the funding situation in EA has changed significantly since the time we came up with this idea (FTX crash).
  • I'm also not sure how cost-effective/useful other residencies have been (Prague, Mexico City, Zanzibar). I would want some more data on these previous residencies before moving forward with more.

I was very surprised to see this! I live in Cape Town and would definitely be keen to be part of this if this existed.

However, I think you need to be clearer about your priority between two conflicting goals here

  1. A really enjoyable place for EAs to spend time and work together.
  2. Launch/promote EA for Africans. To be really frank, Cape Town is not Africa. Lagos or Nairobi (or even Joburg)  would make a better base if this goal is the priority.

(I say this having been part of a team that launched an pan-African startup incubator based in Cape Town, which we later reflected was a nice choice for our lives, but worse for fulfilling our mission. Happy to go into more detail if useful.)

I don't think the dichotomy being presented here is true. We can plausibly have both of these things. 
The claim that "Cape Town is not Africa" also doesn't seem very obvious to me. I can see the possible assumptions here maybe being something like "Africa must necessarily be a harsh environment to live in" or "some degree of material suffering is necessary to understand African perspectives." I don't think either of these are true.

I'm really interested in your perspective on this though. I'll reach out to discuss this further

I definitely wouldn't say a harsh environment or suffering was necessary!  I also wouldn't say it's a dichotomy, but I do think the two priorities would lead you to different locations.

"Cape Town is not Africa" is flippant but there's substance behind it. I really don't think it's contentious to say that Cape Town feels much more like a city in Europe than in another African country.

To share context from tech startup world (particularly since you've emphasized that as a strength of CT as a tech hub in the post), successful startups that expand from Cape Town tend to target the UK or US rather than other African countries; many were aimed at those markets from the beginning.  This could be seen as a good indication of talent based here & compatibility with a largely US/European movement,  but it isn't supportive of CT as a natural base for  a pan-African movement.

  • Examples: GetSmarter (aimed at Europe), Over (aimed at US,  now part of GoDaddy), Pineapple (started in SA, launching in the US), Cogrammar (aimed at global companies), LessonSpace (SA tutoring platform pivoted to this remote learning tool servicing customers in Europe & US).  It's not always true (Luno is a notable exception - big in Africa, though also elsewhere) but I have pretty high confidence this is a trend and I'm not just cherry picking.
  • (Related: Several major SA retailers launched in Nigeria and then backed out (Shoprite, Woolworths, Tiger Brands)  Brief explanation (/a bit clickbaity) here

Conversely, if you look at successful startups that have expanded across multiple countries in Africa, they most commonly start from Nigeria: e.g. Andela, Flutterwave, Jumia, OPay, Interswitch. ChipperCash was well established in Nigeria and Kenya (and several other countries) long before they launched in SA. Google just launched their first African product team in Nairobi. There are obviously many other factors involved  and I'm definitely not saying EA should just copy VC-funded tech patterns. 

All this is shared with the aim of helping you develop this proposal. I think a hub in CT would be a great thing, just worth recognizing CT's limitations as well as its strengths.

Would also be great to hear what other EA  groups and individuals in Africa think on this (e.g. I've seen some events recently from EA Lagos) With the incubator we found people were generally really keen to come from other African countries to  spend time in CT (if funded), though there were some  minor negative incidents with Nigerians encountering xenophobic behaviour here.

Very happy to have a call - I've seen your DM and I'll arrange a time. 

Hi, I’d love to be part of the call to discuss this further.

Thanks for following up. This is very interesting. I'd like to think more about what lessons from the startup world might be applicable in our case.

“Launch/promote EA for Africans. To be really frank, Cape Town is not Africa. Lagos or Nairobi (or even Joburg) would make a better base if this goal is the priority.”

Important comment - there is certainly a benefit for EA to balance productivity and efficiency with insulating itself from the issues it seeks to impact (e.g. GH&WB). Lived experience of a city like Lagos or Nairobi could be extremely valuable for many over access to surfing and good views of coastline. People willing to tackle the short and medium term problems of Africa should be willing to get knee deep in the reality.

My impressions is that safety in Lagos ha degraded further in the last few years so I wonder how this could be managed.

The problems of Lagos are mostly structural. Say, insufficient infrastructure like road or housing and the general terrible governance across the country. However, Lagos is considered generally safe, arguably the safest in Nigeria right now.

I wouldn’t suggest the idea for a completely different reason which is cost. We have black outs for, sometimes, 20 hours a day. The cost of running your own independent power is high and every other aspect of your productivity may rest on having this single piece of infrastructure.

Despite all the challenges, if you like New York, you’ll like Lagos. It’s open, warm, bustling. Lagosians never-say-die. Perhaps this intense connection between dysfunction and survival is where all the creativity comes from. Hence why the city thrives, not at its optimum potential but certainly a force to reckon with.

I agree with you especially on productivity losses. I lived in Lagos for a few months. My sense was that since I was there kidnappings and general civil unrest has increased (perhaps the former more-so outside of Lagos).

Interesting about your comments on blackouts. I lived in both a villa with its own generator as well as an estate with its own back-up gen. Surely an EA hub could find a location which provides this?

Have you seen Eko Atlantic by any chance? Has this made much progress and I wonder if this could this be a potential location in the medium future if the project actually manifests.

As an effective altruist working and living in Cape Town I can definitely say that this kind of space would have a massive impact on the budding EA community there. I think it can serve as a great launching point for EA in Africa generally and serve as a great melting pot for ideas.

Having spent two weeks in Cape Town this March and meeting Jordan there I can confirm that it’s a great city to be in and I would love to see an EA coworking space there. Thank you for taking the initiative!