Technology innovation hubs have sprung up across Africa. These spaces provide tailored support to their communities and create a collaborative environment which can spark innovation, stimulate economic growth and help them tackle societal challenges in novel ways.
Despite their potential, many hubs are struggling to become financially sustainable and it's taking time for their members to create social impact or build profitable businesses.
We spoke with management teams from innovation hubs across the continent to understand how they're addressing these challenges.
A hub's strength lies in the strength of its community. Their open plan design and sociable culture can encourage the matching of skill sets and sharing of new ideas. But this will not happen on its own.
As Samantha Manclark, hub manager at JoziHub in Johannesburg explains, "Many people come to us with excellent ideas, but without teams in place to bring them to fruition. When we increase the number of events we hold and get resident start-ups together to share ideas, we begin to see a lot more cross-pollination between them."
Start-ups also need guidance. Hubs recognise the need to provide mentorship and training to their communities and have found that structured support programmes with clear targets work best. Software skills must be up to scratch but that's not enough.
Co-Founder and Executive Director of Bongo Hive in Zambia, Lukonga Lindunda believes that, "Having a business incubation manager who is at the hub and talking to people every day is important. They can provide advice on issues like legalities, copyright, business planning and financial management."
Barbara Birungi, Director of Hive Colab, reached out to businesses for support. "Sometimes it can be hard to source the business development services that start-ups need. It took time to engage the private sector but they now provide pro bono support to our community."
Many hubs try and support their communities to tackle social issues. This is no easy task. To do so, hubs must engage a diverse group of experts. Bongo Hive's Executive Director, Lukonga works with larger organisations to achieve this. "We've partnered with the US Embassy to run a social entrepreneurship boot camp. They have large networks and their promotion helped us bring in new blood."
Lukonga also recognises a need to help charities recognise how technology can help them to address social issues. "We need to get them to understand the role of tech in their work because many are not tech savvy. It helps to get civil society groups involved in the development of the technology right from the start."
Hackathons can help bring together a diverse group to tackle a social problem, but their impact is often short-lived. "Many teams who win hackathons fail to move forward. To address this, we ensure that the roadmap for development of an idea into a business is clearly defined, illustrating what kind of support the winners get if they decide to take their idea to market," Lukonga from Bongo Hive explains.
Director of Incubation at Co-Creation Hub in Lagos, Nigeria, Tunji Eleso is regularly available to give social start-ups on-going support. He believes this is necessary if promising concepts are to be translated into workable solutions.
"We have structured pre-incubation and incubation programmes. We devise clear targets with start-ups, provide them with tailored support and release funding when teams deliver on objectives."
Hubs have also struggled to keep entrepreneurs engaged on social projects, particularly if they can't financially support themselves. Ryan Yoder, Executive Director at ActivSpaces is exploring one solution. "Social ventures need to have sustainable business models built around them."
Samantha, community manager at Jozihub approaches this differently. "With our support, many commercial start-ups have found a way to build a social element into their business. It's worth encouraging them to explore how they can make a social impact."
Some social projects will never make money and they shouldn't. Many hubs work with donors to provide small, high risk grants to such projects. This can enable groups to experiment with ideas. It can be challenging for hubs to source medium-sized grants, but it's necessary if their members are to translate concepts and pilots into larger, long-lasting solutions.
Most hubs also rely on grant funding to support themselves. Their managers feel best supported through core funding and simplified applications so that they can focus on responding to on-the-ground need. They believe funders would have a greater understanding of their daily challenges if they visited the spaces more regularly and that they could benefit through greater access to funders' networks.
Many hubs are also starting to generate income. Some provide consultancy services, delivered by community members. As Lukonga from Bongo Hive explains, "Our community build websites and apps for corporates. We also charge organisations to run hackathons and boot camps on their behalf."
Others are bringing in money through membership fees, desk or space hire, training and programmatic activities. JoziHub in Johannesburg is one such hub. Samantha their hub manager explains, "We have a great event space and bring in additional income from charging corporates to use it. They can also hire desk space from us. It's helped to engage with event companies and advertise the space on social media."
It's unlikely that some of the newer technology innovation hubs will solve complex social challenges or produce hugely profitable businesses just yet. But spaces like Co-Creation Hub in Lagos, Nigeria and iHub in Nairobi, Kenya suggest this isn't just a pipedream. They mainly cover their own operation costs, with Co-Creation Hub generating over $1 million in income last year.
Some of the start-ups coming out of them are becoming successful in their own right. M-Farm provides farmers with up-to-date market information, while WeCyclers, a recycling organisation has already generated $140,000 this year.
There won't be a one size fits all solution. Hubs will evolve at their own pace. Each has unique characteristics that reflect their diverse communities, visions and activities as much as the widely varied contexts within which they operate. Some will likely fail along the way. But with patience, in the not too distant future, perhaps we'll see a world where local groups are shaking up the status quo and finding new ways to improve society.
If you'd like to learn more about what technology innovation hub management had to say, you can read this report, created by Indigo Trust: