By Adam Oxford
Africa’s tech scene is surging. Across the continent, new hubs, labs and co-working environments are giving rise to oases of innovation. These meeting places act as a bridge between technology startups, investors and academics, nurturing collaborations. Entrepreneurs experiment together and learn from one another, supported by the hub's ICT infrastructure and mentoring programmes. The results – from the "crowdmapping" tool Ushahidi to homebrew solar heaters to a farmers’ cooperative – are strengthening community-led food and energy systems, and could bring new resilience to local economies.
In February 2012, the Zambian hub, Bongohive, used Ushahidi to produce a map of all the tech hubs across Africa, discovering 29 organisations in total. Today that same map lists 91 hubs, innovation centres, hacker spaces and business incubators. Many of them need external support to grow and prosper – and that’s exactly what a new pan-African "hub of hubs," called AfriLabs, provides.
Set up by some of the biggest names in African IT, and backed by funding from the NGO Hivos, AfriLabs seeks to identify common goals across national boundaries, and help hubs pool their efforts to achieve them. Since its conception in 2011, 19 hubs have signed up, eager to network, learn from each other and benefit from shared resources. Together, these hubs will stand a better chance of creating technological solutions for some of the biggest issues facing the continent. This is the considerable ambition of AfriLabs.
It will take some coordination – a challenge that excites Tayo Akinyemi, AfriLabs’ newly appointed director. An American born to Nigerian parents, Akinyemi is a strong believer in the potential for entrepreneurs to change the African economic landscape. “Tackling resource scarcity, the potential effects of climate change, lack of energy, food security and agriculture: for our members, these are real business opportunities,” she says.
According to Akinyemi, AfriLabs is “essentially an expression of the personal vision of the five co-founders (Bart Lacroix of the 1% Club, Bill White of VC4Africa, Erik Hershman of iHub, ActivSpace’s Bill Zimmerman and Kampala’s Hive Colab founder Jon Gosier). Each of them had already started hubs on the continent. They noticed they had similar interests and that there was a trend of hubs popping up elsewhere.”
When the co-founders realised the organisation needed more than part-time attention, they turned to Akinyemi. An entrepreneur enthusiast, she began her career at Catalyst, a New York-based non-profit that helps business to build inclusive environments and expand opportunities for women. Four years later, she accepted a Princeton in Africa fellowship, which develops young leaders committed to Africa’s advancement through a year-long fellowship with organisations on the African continent. The hope is that this experience will translate into a lifelong commitment to African affairs and service.
That certainly seems to be the case with Akinyemi. Her time working with an international NGO in Abuja, Nigeria, sparked her interest in business and economic development, which culminated in an MBA in Sustainable Global Enterprise. Since then, she has focused on understanding how businesses are built and developed, working with businesses in Africa, the U.S. and Latin America. Her community-inclusive business strategy for a sugarcane ethanol venture in Mozambique was one major success: her efforts helped it to marry positive social impact with a sound commercial case, a goal shared by many of the startups emerging from Africa’s tech hubs.
Akinyemi’s main aim in her new role is to help startups quickly find partners to help them grow. “Startups emerge because they are embedded in communities that facilitate people and investment coming together,” she says. “I see AfriLabs as a way to aggregate and distribute resources. So, if you’re an investor or entrepreneur showing up in St Louis, Senegal, when you get to the airport it may not be obvious who you go to if you’re looking for a partner or a supplier. But when you have a hub, it makes it easier to find the resources you need.”
One AfriLab hub is already helping its members to identify what resources they can exchange on a national level. Nairobi’s iHub, which accelerated the development of Ushahidi, hosts a weekly Green Breakfast Club for local businesses. Events include keynote speeches from sustainability leaders, followed by a resource exchange where each attendee presents their company, their "gives" and their "asks." The information is turned into a resource exchange list which is shared with all the attendees.
ActivSpaces, another AfriLabs member, has helped to produce Agro-Hub, a farmers’ cooperative established to combat poverty among rural farmers in Cameroon. The cooperative provides local growers with price information and agricultural advice via SMS. In March 2013, Agro-Hub also established the Agro-Mart farmers’ supermarket to help growers make more money from their efforts in the field. Agro-Mart now supplies hotels, restaurants and other retailers and exporters, and has plans for franchises, potentially restructuring the food chain across the country.
In many hubs, projects catering for the lifestyle aspirations of the local community – from shopping to entertainment – sit alongside solutions for energy, water and food. Take the Ugandan hub, Hive Colab. It’s home to projects like Bet OTM, a sports betting service for mobile phones, but also holds meetings on climate change issues, and helped develop WASH Reporter: a tool that enables members of the public to report crises related to water sanitation and health.
The work of the hubs has caught the attention of international investors. Microsoft recently announced a $75 million CSR fund called 4Afrika, part of which is earmarked for startup incubation in AfriLabs members iHub and m:lab. Other tech multinationals have made similar investments: unsurprising when you consider that Africa is home to six of the 10 fastest growing economies in the last decade (according to McKinsey).
The ability of the African tech sector to attract high-profile investment is partly due to improvements to the continent’s IT infrastructure. Until 2009, startups were held back by a chronic lack of connectivity. A single connection around the west coast, with a maximum capacity of 340Gbps (gigabits per second), meant more than half a billion people were sharing the same amount of bandwidth as the population of the Netherlands. Over the last three and a half years, that capacity has increased more than a hundredfold, to 35,000Gbps. It’s predicted to treble again by the end of next year.
The increase in capacity has, in turn, fueled the hub movement. Akinyemi is now working through a backlog of AfriLabs membership applications. To become a member at the most basic level, labs must provide an open innovation space with access to broadband, meeting areas and a work area for up to 10 members. Above this level, labs are evaluated on their member base, track record of hosting events, staff and organisational capacity, management team and other factors. The goal is for AfriLabs to be open and non-restrictive, while encouraging labs to graduate to higher tiers of membership by improving the resources they offer.
What really gives AfriLabs an edge, compared to traditional "IT for development" services, is the level of support given to aspirational youngsters. Akinyemi’s understanding of their needs was a key factor in the founders’ decision to appoint her as Director. “Africa is young,” she says, “And it’s young in a way that the creation of formal, full-time jobs is not keeping pace with the need. It’s important for entrepreneurship to emerge so that young people feel as though they can create their own opportunities.”
Some commentators are wary that too great a focus on quick-fix entrepreneurial ventures may discourage young developers from taking on the kind of systemic problems that require patience and long-term thinking to fix.
“The average tech entrepreneur in the U.S. is 42-years-old. The 22-year-old Zuckerbergs make up a 100th of a percent,” says Roy Singham, founder of Thoughtworks, a multinational software company with offices in Johannesburg. “We need to be building much more a sense of competencies across social capital, management capital and business opportunities.”
And yet, by supplying the infrastructure and social capital that will turn today’s entrepreneurs into tomorrow’s success stories, an overarching sense of opportunity – with skills to match – may be just what AfriLabs achieves.
Adam Oxford is a technology journalist based in Johannesburg. Additional material by Duncan Jefferies.
For more information, visit www.afrilabs.com