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From Buckles to Games: The Journey of Rex Bowden and Africa Games Week

Photos by Moe the Photographer

Like the sturdy belt and shiny buckle Rex Bowden once helped sell as a child, entrepreneurship is woven into the fabric of this co-founder of Africa Games Week (AGW). His journey began with those humble sales and blossomed into launching his own events business at the tender age of 20. These experiences instilled in him a profound passion for business and empowering African entrepreneurs. With almost two decades in the events industry, he is the mastermind behind three thriving businesses. So, buckle up as we embark on this joyous ride down memory lane with Bowden.

Bowden grew up in Durban. He recalls, “I grew up during apartheid in South Africa but Durban was a stronghold anti-apartheid establishment. In a church filled with diverse races, I was exposed to lots of different people even when it wasn’t allowed in South Africa.” During his pre-teen years, Bowden mastered Tetris on his cousin’s Game Boy. He would also join friends across the road for Mario Brothers and California Games sessions. And when he turned 13 they got a computer at home where he was exposed to titles like Doom and Halo.

Belts and Buckles business

Young Rex gained early business exposure from his father and school friends. He recalls, “My father had a belt business with 80 employees and a buckle business with 50. He always sent me to school with belts or buckles to sell.” Reflecting on school, Bowden says, “My Muslim best friends convinced me to attend a Jewish school, which was strange but interesting. The Jewish kids were entrepreneurial, and I learned a lot from them. Not being Jewish, I didn’t attend Judaic classes, so I sat with Indian students who were also very entrepreneurial.” These experiences honed Bowden’s negotiation skills and business acumen.

In addition, Bowden delved into art and drama in school while nurturing a love for playing musical instruments. He played the piano, trumpet, and drums, before ultimately focusing on the guitar. His musical journey led him to join several bands, including LazyDeath Star Preview and his current bands, Luna and the Deception (London) and The Whatevs, based in Cape Town where he plays every now and then. He describes his music style as indie with hints of experimental electronica and dream rock.

The Nightclub years

Shortly after high school, at the age of 20, Bowden ventured into the events industry. He recalls transforming his father’s old building into a nightclub. He hosted diverse events like fashion shows and performances from bands across South Africa and Mozambique. Despite its success, the nightclub faced challenges such as rowdy customers and neighborhood disruptions. After managing events for 3 ½ years, Bowden made the tough choice to close the nightclub and move to London, where he pursued a career in event organization and exposed and managed his band – Death Star Preview.

Bowden’s global journey began with a job at ITE Group, an event organizer based in London, where he worked on events across Europe, Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and other diverse locations. He reflects on his experiences, saying, “I did loads of events and sales for them all around the world and it was awesome.” In 2012, Bowden brought back valuable lessons from his time in London, particularly in sponsor and partner acquisition, as well as multinational collaboration. 

Overlooked markets

He emphasized the challenge of altering perceptions about lesser-known countries like Kazakhstan. He also stressed the significance of recognizing business prospects in overlooked markets. Upon his return, Bowden established his first company, Catalyze. He explains, “The focus of Catalyze is to take groups of African companies across all industries to international trade shows worldwide.” During a trip, Bowden met his future co-founder, Nick Hall, who led Interactive Entertainment South Africa (IESA). Bowden proposed taking African game developers overseas with government funding, to which Hall enthusiastically agreed.

“We were getting money from the South African government to take them overseas, and they were coming back with an awesome return on investment. But it was tough convincing international publishers that the games were made in Africa. And dealing with last-minute government funding cuts was always a nightmare.” This prompted Bowden to expand their efforts. They devised a new approach: “Instead of taking developers abroad, we brought game publishers and investors to Africa.” Hall embraced Bowden’s ideas, and with the right timing and support, they launched Africa Games Week.

Castle of Good Hope

Bowden is grateful for the overwhelming support AGW received from both global giants like Ubisoft and Google and local entities like the City of Cape Town and South African Tourism. The inaugural event’s unconventional approach, including its venue at the historic Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town, set it apart from traditional events. Bowden continues to be excited about AGW, driven by the vibrant experiences it provides attendees. It motivates him to replicate this dynamic approach in all his events.

His third business is a blue economy event. “With Ocean Innovation Africa, we don’t want delegates to just sit around and listen to people talk or walk around looking at some stands. This year we’re doing a sunset cruise around the ocean on a ship with 120 people.” At AGW in 2023, Bowden fondly remembers spontaneously inviting delegates for an ocean swim, “I said, who wants to come for a swim with me? And I ended up taking Brian from Thunderful to jump from a rock into the ocean. That’s my highlight, seeing people engage and spending awesome times together.”

Amazing beautiful talent

Bowden’s vision for AGW is to spotlight African gaming talent globally. He says, “Telling people around the world, ‘don’t forget about Africa, there’s amazing stuff coming out of the continent’ is what drives us.” When seeking speakers, the AGW team consults hundreds of individuals yearly. Bowden reflects on a tour of Studio Bolland they gave to the Cape Town Mayoral office before AGW in 2023, noting, “I realized that Studio Bolland is doing so much other work that is not game development just so that they can build their games. So that opened my mind.” Looking ahead to 2024, there’s a strong emphasis on discovering additional opportunities for game developers, particularly through work-for-hire initiatives.

As an entrepreneur, Bowden faces challenges especially with uncertain government funding. “Last year, our funding for all the AGW hosted buyers got pulled 3 weeks before the event happened.” However, he celebrated investor interest, notably from Bright Gambit, acknowledging the importance of supporting game studios despite risks. He also cherished unexpected conversations at Groot Constantia wine farm, where Xbox’s James Lewis was chatting with developers and students, “You could just see James’ face lighting up going, ‘Wow! Amazing beautiful talent in Africa’. ”

Impact on the younger generation

Bowden credits his Catalyze and AGW team for their unwavering support, with individuals like Alexandra, Penny, Cindy, Kiara, Danteya, and Priya, just to mention a few, playing pivotal roles in ensuring the success of events like AGW. This enables him to focus on strategic planning and expansion. To balance work and family life, Bowden prioritizes weekends for quality time with his family where they enjoy outdoor activities in Cape Town. He adds, “On weekends, I try not to work much. If I do, I wake up early before everyone else and work for a few hours. In the evenings, after my kids have dinner, I work again until around 10 or 11 at night. This way, I can have free time during the day.”

He shares the excitement of his sons when big names like Epic and Supercell are involved in AGW. And fondly recalls how his son had more to discuss with a Supercell representative than he did himself, showcasing the impact of such interactions on the younger generation. If Bowden could go back in time and speak to his younger self before he started his entrepreneurial journey he would say: “Don’t run a nightclub when you’re 20, focus on university,” he said laughing.  “But it was an amazing experience. Getting into events is a lot of hard work. It’s very last minute, but it is rewarding. So I’d tell my young self to just go for it, enjoy it and make the most of the experiences as they go.”

Wendi Ndaki
Wendi Ndaki
Wendi Ndaki is a versatile visual artist, writer, and passionate technology enthusiast with a keen interest in the intersection of art and technology. With a Bachelor's degree in Information Systems Technology, Wendi has accumulated 5+ years of experience as a writer in the gaming industry. She is deeply committed to merging her two passions: art and IT (technology), finding the perfect harmony where they converge. The video games industry, with its seamless fusion of art and tech, has become her chosen home. Through her writing and animated videos, Wendi aims to bridge the information gap, empowering creative tech businesses to thrive and flourish in their endeavours.

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