From Silicon Valley to Silicon Savannah
Hubs, hub-networks and numerous co-working spaces exist in most Western cities, such as the Betahaus in Berlin or The Hub in Seattle. Unlike government-supported technology parks with large budgets, hubs are usually start-up initiatives themselves and involve much smaller investments. Hubs are mostly community-driven ventures that aim to spur technology promotion through a bottom-up approach. They capture that garage-like feeling of the self-made internet, adding a business perspective to the world of creatives and hackers.
"The Spread of Digital Media and Mobil Technologies and the Growth of Local Technology Industries has not Stopped in the United States and Europe."
In Europe, these hubs’ communities are often influenced by the current trend in DIY production as well as inspired by creative industries and open source culture. The spread of digital media and mobile technologies and the growth of local technology industries has not stopped in the United States and Europe.
The concept of innovation hubs has spread to other continents. The idea of creating hubs has become especially popular in Africa where hubs are mushrooming from Cairo to Cape Town. An interactive map created by the Zambian hub Bongohive counts 73 innovation hubs in Africa.
This explosion of hubs in Africa is part of the digital and mobile boom the continent is currently undergoing. With the rapid increase of mobile penetration and the spread of mobile access to the internet via the use of smartphones, particularly in urban centers, new markets and business opportunities are beginning to emerge. In countries like Kenya, the technology boom is starting to have an economic impact. Today, young people see a future in the growing private sector economy instead of the aid industry. As Jonathan Kalan from the Huffington Post observed, “they no longer graduate university with hopes of ending up at the once best paying jobs in town – UN agencies and the scores of other well financed NGOs. Instead they dream of starting their own business, or finding work in an increasingly robust private sector full of entrepreneurial ideas.”
Technology innovation hubs are the place to be for these young African entrepreneurs. As Will Mutua, founder of the analytical online magazine Afrinnovator, puts it: “Borrowing from the popular song, “Young Man, Go to the YMCA!” for the Nairobi techie it increasingly sounds like “Young Man, Go to the iHub”. To him, the spread of co-working spaces and meeting places for the technology community is easy to explain: “Africa once felt like a very fragmented tech ecosystem.
You might be the only person in Zambia who codes in Python and you feel isolated, you will get nowhere unless you try find like-minded people”. Hubs are starting points for many young programmers and entrepreneurs, places to meet and to start working on their ideas.
Hubs in Africa are filling a gap in the community of academic and private sector players that technology innovation needs to spur economic growth. In many Western countries established structures exist to support the transition between university and work place as well as the growth of business clusters and matchmaking between entrepreneurs and investors. But in many African countries there is a lack of established structures to assist young people in reaching their entrepreneurial potential and to help them make use of their technical skills.
"In many African Countries there is a Lack of Established Structures to Assist Young People in Reaching their Entrepreneurial Skills Potential and to Help them Make Use of their Technical Skills."
Many universities still teach information technologies and computer sciences on a very abstract level. There is little hands-on work or engagement in real IT-projects. At some universities, computer programmers graduate without ever having coded. Both students and graduates often lack the opportunities to gain working experience and develop entrepreneurial skills. Often, the first hurdle is the lack of access to computer facilities and good internet connectivity outside of university facilities and set curricula. At the same time, the spread of and access to technology is creating a drive for young people to play an active and creative part in the growing technology industry.
Hilda Moraa Morara from the research team of iHub, a technology hub in Nairobi, has conducted extensive research during the past year on innovation hubs in Africa and has examined different hubs and their communities, including the iHub in Nairobi, the HiveColab in Kampala, Uganda, and ActiveSpaces in Cameroon. She found that the majority of those frequenting the hubs are between the ages of 18 and 29 years old and that “innovation centers appeal most to the youth because they are viewed as a break-away from the ‘suit-and-tie’ formal employment of the 21st century.” She concluded from her interview with community members that “young people believe that their ideas and creations can fully be developed under the hospice of an innovation hub where they exchange ideas among other members and finally come up with possible solutions to recurring problems,” she wrote in a publication on ActiveSpaces in Cameron.
The idea of creating a hub for the growing technology and blogger community to physically meet was first born at Barcamp Nairobi 2008. When Ushahidi, an open source project that crowdsources crisis information, received funding to open the iHub in 2010, the idea was put into practice. iHub is located in Nairobi, in an area outside of the congested down-town area. The iHub started off on the first floor of a business tower but now has offices spanning three floors and includes a cafe and a restaurant. Recreational spaces like these are an important part of the concept and are occupied throughout the day by people eating, meeting, typing and chatting.
The main space of the iHub is a welcoming area of co-working desks, meeting space, the café and a tabletop football. It is hard not to network in a space like this and conversations are easily started with the person sharing the desk with you or ordering a coffee next to you at the bar. Today, the iHub has over 8,000 virtual members who interact via its web platform, 240 green members who physically use the space, and nine red members who pay for a semi-permanent desk space for a period of 6 to 12 months.
iceaddis is the first Ethiopian innovation hub. “ice” stands for innovation, collaboration and entrepreneurship’. The iceaddis hub consists of two containers, which have been refurbished as open work spaces, and is situated on the campus of the architectural faculty at the University of Addis Ababa. The hub was founded in 2010. Jörn Schultz, one of the founders, explains how a visit to the iHub sparked the idea to create a space for “creative and motivated young people with project ideas”.
iceAddis wants “to give these people the opportunity to take initiative and work on their project ideas outside of the existing institutional structures. When we visited the iHub in Nairobi we thought, this is what we need in Addis too. And that is when we decided to found ice.” Its biggest achievements have been creating a brand and a physical space where the Ethiopian tech-community can collaborate, network and host community activities that provide an interface to the broader academic and business communities and which allow for cross-discipline interactions among individuals.
ActiveSpace is an initiative started by students from Buea University, in the South West of Cameroon. In a country where less than three percent of the population have internet access, spaces like ActiveSpace provide an important resource and contribute to building ICT capacities among youths in the country. ActiveSpace, which stands for ‘African Center for Technology, Innovation & Ventures Spaces’ is an innovation hub that acts as an open collaboration space and technology incubator. The hub provides coaching services and development resources for start-ups. Youth unemployment is rampant in Cameroon and ActiveSpaces sees itself as an employment and job creation stimulator.
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.