10 years ago in Africa, we began to see the emergence of independent innovation and entrepreneurship centres. These were hubs not housed in the research and development departments of companies. They were launched independently, many times by innovators themselves. They were built to give innovators across Africa spaces to build, test, and launch their products. The African innovation ecosystem was making headlines around the world. The Kenyan ecosystem was dubbed the Silicon Savannah, a mirror to Silicon Valley, though many Kenyan innovators dislike that tag.
Reflecting on the role of our hubs
Many hubs were oversubscribed at launch; an indication that the innovation community appreciated the value that hubs were bringing, or at the very least, the potential value. Being part of an innovation community that shared the same physical space was appealing. The community is a social construct and the value hubs held for the innovation community was initially largely social value. Social value is hard to measure and after the initial excitement died down, a discussion on the best role and relevance of hubs began. We did not want to turn into glorified cyber cafes where people came for free wifi, affordable coffee and to surf social media all day. This was a key concern for the African innovation ecosystem.
What value did African hubs offer investors, startups, corporates, and the government? What was their role in Africa? Did they have any positive impact on Africa? We welcomed those questions. Like any new venture we were figuring things out and the questions helped to do this faster. We needed to define and demonstrate impact.
Hubs have a positive impact on Africa. More specifically, African hubs offer valuable support to African startups. We identified a key gap between an idea being generated and that idea growing into a solution that is scalable and attractive to investors, corporates and governments. This process is not automatic and has several pitfalls. By harnessing the power of their communities, hubs are able to fill this gap and nurture startups to scale. The importance and impact of this nurturing role that hubs play are difficult to value and difficult to attribute directly. This makes it almost impossible to articulate compared to other types of support for example, investing funds directly into a startup. How do you value the peace of mind that hubs give startup founders who do not have to worry about rent and security, but only need to focus on building their products?
The impact question
Like in other companies running a hub can be a thankless job. Members, corporates and governments expect miracles to come out of them. Few want to be involved in the details of how that happens. Sometimes even those startups that grow in our hubs, are lukewarm in their support when they graduate out because the innovation world has romanticised the false ‘I did it alone’ narrative. Hubs have been implementers of large budget programs, which shows maturity in organisation. They have also featured regularly on the itinerary of high profile State guests, which is valuable PR for members. Still, when the dust settles, questions on the impact of hubs centre around numbers.
Hubs that can do so have resorted to showing impact by reciting on command, numbers to show some level of impact. The number of startups graduated, amount of funding raised by startups, number of women entrepreneurs supported, and so on. This is important data to share because entrepreneurs have a vital role in growing African economies and it is important to share that incredible success. But the truth is that the success that matters cannot be told solely by investment and member numbers. Hubs need to learn to be confident enough to unashamedly tell their stories to teach the world what it takes to turn a group of innovators and entrepreneurs into a community that has a positive social impact. This impact is where we as hub owners, managers, members draw a lot of our satisfaction.
Harnessing the power of community
Granted, many successful African companies did not come out of innovation hubs but all successful companies have a support structure that was crucial to their growth. Some innovators thrive in solitude while some thrive in communities. Hubs cater primarily to those startup founders who want to be surrounded by community. Chinua Achebe, a great African author, wrote in his book Things Fall Apart: “A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.”
Innovators who work out of hubs do so because they want to commune with others who are like them, who can mentor them and be mentored by them, who can teach them and be taught by them, who can work with them. The most impactful hubs will curate membership to ensure an interesting mix of valuable people. From human resource experts to lawyers, content creators, researchers, and even poets and writers, hubs ensure that innovators are surrounded by potential users and collaborators for their products.
During my time at the iHub for example, Sky.Garden, a growing e-commerce platform, had other members like Pace, a music hardware company, using their platform. It is extremely valuable having one of your key users sitting next to you and invested in your success. It’s just as valuable to share a space with the team building the platform that you rely on to sell your product. Valleymore, a growing errands service, had fellow members testing out their errands service and helping them iterate their product. Freelance developers and designers in the space got a good chunk of their work from other community members. Researchers like Eleanor Merchant spent years working with, understanding, and writing about the iHub community. TripleOKLaw lawyers, one of Africa’s largest law firms, spent time at the iHub understanding innovators and their needs so they could develop training on legal issues they had identified as areas of concern for innovators while at the same time securing clients. That’s value.
Hubs as ambassadors
Hubs receive many visitors. My favourite visits are those of mothers who want to understand better what this ‘thing’ is that their children are so interested in. They have questions about how marketable the tech industry is, what courses their children would need to study at university and what universities offered those courses, what kind of people hang out at the hubs, what equipment their children would need.
For visitors from further afield, hubs are regularly the first port of call for those who want to understand the local innovation landscape. Hubs showcase their ecosystems to the world. We’ve always felt that this is a very privileged position for us to be in. We get them excited about opportunities for collaboration with innovators in our country and opportunities for collaboration with different sectors. We help them begin to understand regulatory environments. We change some negative perceptions of our countries. We help them determine people and places they need to visit to get an even better understanding of the local ecosystem.
For hubs, this is a time investment to share our story and an opportunity for our community to talk about their work and have it validated by others, not just us. This investment pays off. Hubs recruit more members and ambassadors. Hubs also earn more clients and deals for our innovators. That’s value.
Hubs as safe spaces
Hub managers, program managers, community managers all spend countless hours listening to, advising, empathising with, connecting innovators. These are often everyday conversations about family, business, fears, wins whose true impact we only knew when those innovators came back and told us what those conversations did for them. How they fixed relationships, how they pivoted businesses, how they killed bad ideas or even how they sought more help that made all the difference. That’s value.
Hubs offer a variety of social value which I would argue is just as important as financial or economic value because we need to invest in creating people and mindsets that can realise the kind of financial or economic impact that all ecosystems aspire to. We nurture free thinkers, progressive thinkers, collaborative thinkers, and generous innovators who build for communities.
The foundation of hubs
The role of hubs is to catalyse their local innovation ecosystem. Few other institutions have the ability to interact so closely with innovators and entrepreneurs and to be nimble enough to make quick decisions and adjustments based on the needs of their communities. At their core, hubs are neutral spaces open to everyone and embracing a culture of open innovation. They are safe spaces to start, try, fail and succeed and they offer communities, networks and training based on collective as well as individual needs. All other value is built on this foundation and if the foundation does not exist, then the value does not exist. There is great value in being independent spaces offering support for African innovators for social good. Hubs should guard this ability jealously.
However, hubs must also quickly come to terms with the fact that social good, on its own, is no longer enough. We teach our social innovators to build profitable businesses around their products if they want them to scale and as hubs we must begin to do the same, quickly. Hubs sit on a lot of critical data and must now quickly turn this into value that complements their unquestionable social value. It would be extremely powerful if hubs did this collaboratively.
Harnessing the power of data
As hubs work towards showcasing their value, mapping out ecosystems will be extremely important. Hubs by the very nature of communities they house or attract already have a rudimentary framework of what the ecosystem looks like end to end. Add to that the needs of startups and SMEs which hubs listen to and address every day. When hubs learn to talk to each other more, then the pieces will begin to fall into place a lot faster. Growth Africa did a good job of beginning a conversation on terminologies we all use and crowdsourcing definitions.
We need more conversations and collection of data on who provides community spaces, who runs accelerator programs, who runs incubation programs, who’s looking for a pipeline for investment, who’s creating programming for specific sectors, who is focused on private and public sector linkages? This information alone, available in one place offers value to hubs as a collective and also individually. It educates decisions on programming and strategy. Hubs are more valuable to others when they use this data because their work is then driven by demand which makes it impactful. For example, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and the Africa Union’s Agenda 2063 all need powerful in-country partners, with impact, to test and implement their programmes.
Innovators build for challenges experienced by them and by communities they live in or interact with. Hubs are well placed to curate data on who’s building what and what they need to scale it. Trends and market fit conversations, for example, will be easy to have if we collect the right data. It is also valuable for people wanting to make strategic financial and time investments. Imagine how much easier it would be for businesses to scale across Africa if hubs shared their data?
Hubs leading national agendas
As innovation many times precedes policy, hubs are well placed to forecast national policies and get a headstart on ensuring that they are progressive policies. The convening power of hubs will ensure that all innovation voices are heard and considered. Policies, once they come into play, are then more likely to be adopted. For example, hardware hubs like Gearbox have raised concerns on tax policies that hurt inventors at the beginning of their manufacturing journeys.
Hubs do great work, we must now learn how to bottle, communicate, and sell all of it. This will be a major shift towards sustainability. Networks and storytelling will be key. I’ll write about this soon.
If you have ideas for how best to bottle this value, please reach out and let us make it happen.