Although my phone keeps autocorrecting his name to Mumford, this man is definitely more punk than insipid folk rock. Monty Munford is probably best known for his contributions on tech to publications like Wired, The Economist, The Telegraph, Mashable and MIT Tech Review.
While there’s no traditional route into journalism, Munford’s journey off the beaten path took him around the world for 15 years before coming back to London to work as a motorcycle dispatch rider. Having always wanted to be a writer, he finally bit the bullet at age 38 and signed up to a three-month periodical journalism course at the London College of Print.
His real training however, was the year he spent working for a weekly IT publication, “sub-editing fucking idiots… they knew their subject but they knew absolutely nothing about how to write. I thought if I could do that for a year then I could sub-edit or edit or write anything and I hope that’s the case.”
That stint proved an important stepping stone for Munford. The tech knowledge he gleaned from editing bad articles, combined with his abiding travel bug set him up to become one of the most interesting tech writers of his generation.
The positivity of his writing sets it apart, in a field of journalism that can often be critical and caustic. “I think it’s absolutely fucking crucial that people write positively about things. And not just positively for the sake of it, to be contrarian because of bad writers and hack journalism.
I am a cynical fucker, I’m a curmudgeonly old cunt… but when it comes to glory… glorify the things that deserve to be glorified, absolutely.”
Much of his focus has been on deserving emerging tech spaces like India – where he lived for a number of years and became something of a Bollywood star – and Africa. Africa he says, is where the most interesting tech innovation is happening in the world. “To me, Africa is sort of the last frontier… mobile phones and technology have completely changed that continent. There’s also that kind of hacking, making-do stuff – it’s extraordinary.”
Nigeria he says is “particularly energetic”, and the haphazard streets of Lagos will he says, give rise to the next Amazon. “Lagos is the city of the future. It’s unbelievable. They’ve got something like 30,000 people coming across Africa every week to settle there. And they’ve got some companies that are […] managing to deliver things 24 hours, and drone e-commerce delivery.”
Despite the innovative spirit that’s alive and well on the African continent, the West still views it with a kind of charitable condescension. Bridging that Occidental gap in understanding is crucial to anchoring investment in African startups.
“Pregnant African women need mobile health – I get that. I get the fact that they need to get to a hospital and monitor themselves and all that, but pregnant African women also want entertainment. They’re just like me and you.
“They don’t need to create all these apps that are so-called charitable and aidsy. A lot of people in Africa like Rihanna as much as in London or Derbyshire.“And that’s the thing that interests me. It’s treating that continent with respect and not treating it as some sort of experimental ground for new apps or new philanthropic endeavours which don’t have a commercial element. I think that’s ridiculous. I think that’s what has fucked up Africa.”
Monty also runs Mob76, a strategic consultancy that helps build up companies and connects money to talent. Along with highlighting the work being done in Africa through his written coverage, Monty tries to connect Western investors to startups and would-be founders.
“I think that the entrepreneurship and the innovation and the talent is what’s coming out of Africa. The investors or the so-called advocates are coming in and a lot of them are just there – it’s almost like a land-grab, like a Scramble for Africa as there was at the end of the 19th century. But it was land then, now it’s companies.”The fear for many Western investors when assessing the potential of African companies is safety. People are wary of investing in risky places, but Munford thinks it’s all down to attitude.
“Yeah, it’s fucking dangerous. Really it is. But it depends on how you act. If you go out there and you’ve a massive watch on your wrist, being a bit imperial then you deserve what happens to you!”
Negotiating African streets is no problem for a born and bred Londoner. He tells me about a fracas he got into in Bloemfontein, which he says is “like Brixton was in the ‘80s. Brixton was never scary anyway unless you were a total yuppie. Then it was perfectly fine. If you’re a punk you’ll be fine. That’s absolutely a good philosophy.”But it’s not like African innovation is kicking its heels waiting for foreign investment. Africa is full of forward-looking organisations like iHub in Kenya, Meltwater in Ghana, and people like Robert Lamptey – “he’s about 27,28, dresses better than Tinie Tempah, the full parcel” – the founder of Saya Mobile.
“That’s Africa’s future… if you’ve got connectivity, and you’ve got a mobile phone, and you’ve got access to data. It’s not just people sitting on farms waiting for the prices of crops to change. It’s kids coding and learning and trying to do tests against the best students in the world.”Nevertheless, Monty recognises the difficulties that African companies face when it comes to accessing capital and visas. “That’s what I’m trying to do. To connect investors with African companies and fast-track entrepreneurs with visas, subsidies for international travel – the visa is the biggest thing.”
This work gives him “something to carry on and do until the day you die. It’s something that energises you and keeps you young. And you’re probably getting the impression that I’m probably a pretty immature 53 year-old but fuck it, I don’t care.
I’m still alive and every single thing that I get my teeth into just resuscitates me and enlivens me.”