The last decade might as well be labeled the decade of the “hub” in Africa. Technology (tech) and innovation hubs, in particular, have acted as pillars of tech entrepreneurship, often times embodying Silicon Valley-style methods of innovation and entrepreneurship, and even attracting grants and appropriations from global bodies such as the World Bank.
Some observers such as Rwanda President, Paul Kagame, see tech entrepreneurship as a “leveler of grounds” between the global north and south, in part because the tools and protocols for the development of digital products exist in both contexts, at least in theory. Also, organisations such as the World Bank view tech entrepreneurship as a critical path towards leapfrogging major infrastructure deficits in Africa.
For example, mobile money solution M-PESA, and a raft of other FinTech companies are seen as the way to "innovate" and "leapfrog" traditional, inefficient systems in the global south.
Tech hubs have overall been viewed as the kilns through which tech entrepreneurship is created and shaped to form. In fact, in 2015, former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon told an audience at Kenya's iHub, arguably Africa’s most renowned and successful tech hub, that they are the “hope of Africa."
Meanwhile, former U.S. president Barack Obama termed Kenya and its tech ecosystem as a “hotbed of innovation."
The promise of Africa's tech hubs
However, tech hubs have been operating parallel to universities, local enterprises, and other existing infrastructure, rather than, I would argue, in tandem with them.
Hubs promised a lot especially with regard to startups’ finance, investment, mentorship, growth needs. Something that resulted in an overload of responsibilities and expectations. Suddenly they were expected to become entire ecosystems within themselves. The founders of Hypercube in Zimbabwe for instance, saw this as one of the reasons behind their collapse.
Now that grant and donor support have not been sustainable let alone scalable for the majority of the 440+ hubs in Africa today, hubs have been forced to change missions and focus, in a bid to survive, or even nourish, the startups they seek to incubate and facilitate.
The shift in focus is summarily described in this 2017 headline of a Wall Street Journal article; Kenya’s Tech Hub Gets a Makeover.
African tech hubs look like any other in the world. Resplendent with beanie bags and foosball tables, inspirational graffiti marked within their walls and possibly neighbouring a skyscraper or two, marks them as similar to hubs elsewhere. However, the buck stops if tech hubs cannot sustain themselves let alone promote startup growth and transformation.
The future belongs to those who’ll step out of the building to tackle inequality, diversity and fundamental social challenges. Those who’ll find a middle-ground between existing infrastructure (think universities and local enterprises) and tomorrow’s imaginaries have a fairer chance at converting the ever teeming innovative ideas into meaningful real-world solutions and products.
Hubs such as Nigerian founded CcHUB have already taken this least traveled but potentially rewarding route. The road to sustainability means that the startup phase for hubs is over and a new stage begins: nurturing local talent, and crucially, weaning themselves off hero-worship and “fetishization” of tech entrepreneurship and its evangelists.
Cover image credit: NESA by Makers/Unsplash