Competition or Collaboration?
There are differences between spaces like the iHub and business incubators like 88mph. Incubators have a commercial and business oriented approach. To them, community building and peer learning are means to an end and not goals as such. As Nikolai Barnwell explains, “if we have 15 start-ups sharing a space, it’s easier to attract investors than if we had one start-up to present”. Hosting a communal working space is important to 88mph, as it makes it easier for them to network and monitor the start-ups they invest in. The iHub team has the aim of promoting business opportunities as well as social benefits. To them, community building and peer learning is a goal in itself, which they work toward through their different activities. Jessica Colaco from the iHub believes the concept of open source and the idea of creating accessible and open structures have influenced the iHub and other spaces. This philosophy has been adapted, in the sense that such hubs try to create open access to technical infrastructures, and peer learning opportunities.
In a rapidly growing ecosystem like the one in Nairobi, there is room for different approaches and models. Today, a number of different hubsand incubators exist, all with different focal areas and funding models. But not all spaces collaborate. Jessica Colaco believes the current market situation is contributing to the competitive atmosphere, “Nairobi is very competitive, because everyone wants to bring out the next big thing”. From the iHub’s perspective, there is a lack of collaboration between the different hubs and incubators.
Some spaces, however, maintain close working relations. The iHub, for instance, collaborates with other incubators, such as the mLab or the Nailab. Start-ups like KopoKopo and Mfarm have moved on from the iHub to these incubators. There is also informal collaboration between the @iLab, a center of excellence that also acts as an incubator based at Kenya’s Strathmore University. Many Strathmore graduates, some of which were involved in the @iLab, now work at the iHub or are connected to it, including Jessica.
On a pan-African level, the network Afrilabs is attempting to foster networking and knowledge exchange between African hubs. The aim of the network is to create synergies between hubs and improve their chances of success by sharing best practices, enhancing visibility for its members and, in the long term, help establish funding opportunities. Hilda Moraa of the iHub research team believes it is “very hard to replicate success, but by learning from each other’s Hub and their initiatives and working closely with the community of members who are talented and energetic then this success journey can easily be achieved and replicated uniquely in each Hub.”
There are initial attempts to spur collaboration and network the hubs for instance through joint events, but organizing deeper collaboration and knowledge exchange will take time. Afrilabs, a network organization for African technology hubs, is still in the process of setting up larger operations.#
About the Author
Geraldine de Bastion is a freelance international consultant with a multicultural background based in Berlin, Germany. She is an expert on information and communication technology and new media for development and advises governmental organisations, NGOs and businesses on digital media and communication strategies. She also works with activists and bloggers around the world.