“Incubation in its current form is broken and misunderstood.”
That was one of the controversial statements that opened a recent gathering of African tech hub and incubator leaders and others who work to support start ups. It came from Tanye Ver loren van Themaat from Tshimologong in South Africa. Not everyone agreed. Helen Anatogu from the IDEA Hub in Nigeria, responded that the problem wasn’t the approach but the context: “you are trying to support entrepreneurs in a space where people have to worry about their next meal or where they will sleep that night.”
Incubation — providing the necessary support for new enterprises to grow sufficiently to survive the cold winds of the market — is one of the core roles of tech hubs and one of the key objectives of the Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct in Braamfontein, Johannesburg where we met. Participants came from Nigeria, Senegal, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa to share learnings and ideas about how to improve our work. As someone running a new incubator programme, this was a unique opportunity to learn from people who have been doing this for far longer.
We worked on five questions over two days of very intense conversations:
In what ways are we trying to help entrepreneurship and innovation? (and which ways are working?)
Who are we helping? (and who are excluding?)
Why are we doing it? (what are our economic and social goals and values?)
How are we thinking about these innovation processes? and
What are the opportunities for collaboration and communication?
What did we learn?
The ecosystem of support for start-ups in Africa — incubators, co-working spaces, investment networks and training institutions — is dynamic. One of our participants was Isabella Hayward from the World Bank’s Nairobi office and she was kept busy in the breaks gathering information to update the Bank’s widely cited map of African Tech Hubs. My Wits colleague Luci Abrahams, who also participated, has documented forty eight in South Africa alone. While there is growth there are also severe challenges. High rental costs and problems in making co-working spaces financially sustainable have led to closures as well as new openings.
Who is, and who should be supported needs more research and more thought. While many hubs have high levels of participation from women, this doesn’t necessarily flow through to who actually starts and succeeds as founders of new enterprises. Russell Southwood, the editor of Media and ICT newsletter Balancing Act, presented some of his fundings from a study of tech hubs for the International Development Research Centre. He questioned whether the focus on youth was appropriate given evidence that people with more work experience and networks were often more likely to succeed.
Finding the right talent to work in tech hubs is an important and common issue. Bosun Tijane from CC Hub in Nigeria said we needed to ‘boil the ocean’ to find the right people. He argued success came from leadership that could convey values: “People want to do jobs that make them feel like they have a purpose, so representing what is important to the tech space is key to attracting the right type of people.”
Many valuable ideas emerged for potential collaboration. Babacar Birane from Concree in Senegal was one of those who were excited about the opportunities to develop shared back-end, training and other services and to look at common ways of measuring our performance that togther could improve tech hubs’ effectiveness and efficiency. Helen Anatogu and others were keen to work together to better understand future trends in demand for digital skills and the digital economy, to ensure that our programmes were better adapted to and more resilient for an (uncertain) future. There were also suggestions for developing a manifesto for African tech. Sheilah Birgen from iHub in Kenya saw opportunities to collaborate more in advocacy: “Tech hubs need to be more involved in policy and advocacy to implement systems that we know we need for skills generation.”
There are some big questions about the future roles of tech hubs and incubation and acceleration programmes. As the tech landscapes in Africa change, so tech hubs need to respond and predicting and understanding those changes is challenging. As the sector grows we may also need to develop better ways of understanding and measuring our own impacts.
Of course context matters, and there were as many differences as similarities — of language, resources and even values. What united the participants was an appetite to work and learn together to make our interventions more impactful. Since the meeting, there have been other signs of this spirit with a call from Femi Longe of CcHub to contribute to crafting an African digital innovation and entrepreneurship manifesto. A sign perhaps of things to come.
The gathering was supported by the International Development Research Centre based in Ottawa, Canada. It was organised by Jamlab and Tshimologong in collaboration with Russell Southwood of Balancing Act. The event was facilitated by Andile Masuku of African Tech Round Up. A full report on the event will be published in the new year.