The problem with simply growing more tech hubs in Africa

Yaba is Nigeria’s Silicon Valley.
Yaba is Nigeria’s Silicon Valley.
Image: Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye
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More than 130 new hubs have opened in Africa over the last two years, and there are still not enough.

Many hubs get financial and technical support from foundations as well as tech and telco corporates among others. More recently, Facebook and Google have both rolled out significant new Lagos centers, with NG_Hub and Launchpad respectively. There are promises of more to come elsewhere.

The “tech hub” label includes a wide range of very different types of operations. Many, perhaps most, are community centers in the most important way possible. There’s immense value, for aspiring entrepreneurs to be around like-minded innovators and technology dreamers if you’re in an African city where trying to be the next Mark Zuckerberg isn’t the most obvious ambition.

Then there are those like those supported by Google and Facebook, which are a bit more than just being a place for good wifi and regular electricity. If you can get into their programs, your startup would likely get some crucial world- class technical support.

What the tech giants are offering

Facebook’s hub will be home to workspaces, an event space and is to host digital training programs including Fb Start Accelerator Program and SheMeansBusiness. It will also offer grants of $20,000 in equity-free funding. Over a three-year period, Google’s Launchpad Accelerator Africa program will offer $3 million in similar funding to more than 60 startups on the continent as well as provide mentorship and technology support.

There’s also an end-to-end model, which provides community, technical support and early equity investment. One example: MEST, one of the longest-running headquartered in Accra, now also has hubs in Lagos and Cape Town, with Nairobi expected by the end of the year.

Many more are needed, says Rebecca Enonchong, who chairs Afrilabs, a pan-African network of around 90 hubs across 30 countries.

“When local corporates see Facebook and Google opening up they’ll follow. And that’s good because we need more hubs, not fewer,” she said during last month’s Vivatech event. As Enonchong sees it, the role of tech hubs enabling startups by providing access to training and networking could be even more important than raising money.

The biggest needs now, beyond sheer numbers

So perhaps the most pressing need is more and different types of hubs. As the market matures, there will be demand for specialized knowledge, suggests Aaron Fu, who runs MEST Africa. “I think there needs to be a more collaborative model between hubs,” says Fu. “There could be some that specialize in different sectors that we could direct our startups to collaborate with.” Examples could be a UX/design center or a fintech hub.

One of the less discussed blind spots has been the absence of close links to academic centers of innovation, similar to how Stanford University has always had close links with Silicon Valley in California. Addressing this will require hands-on support from the local private sector, which can benefit from sharing the risks of innovation.

Julius Akinyemi, enterpreneur-in-residence at MIT Media Lab, sees this lack of a full eco-system and lack of cross pollination of ideas and skills across African tech hubs. “We need to find a solution to the private sector getting involved in R&D to fuel innovation that then creates trust in startup companies for local funds to invest in them and create local wealth,” he says. “This is why countries in the western world benefit from institutions’ innovation to create new products and/or new market.”