From Cameroon to Kenya to South Africa, approximately 200 tech hubs have been created throughout Africa in the past five years. This upsurge has received wide attention and hubs are regularly praised for their ability to take advantage of the rise of ICT to address poverty alleviation through market-based mechanisms. Many commentators perceive the rise of ICT hubs as a decisive step towards economic convergence, and one question burns the lips of journalists world-wide: “Is the next Facebook African?” This is precisely the question this article does not aim to answer: instead of focusing on speculations, the article aims at rethinking hubs in-context, to assess their sustainability on the continent.
Tech hubs are innovation spaces defined by Audette Chapdelaine as “physical environments that promote community, learning, and making [which] provide opportunities to engage with people, ideas, and technologies, experience participatory culture and acquire the literacies and skills needed to prosper in the 21st century”. There are open spaces, filled by large desks and computers where a bunch of creative people come to work every day.
Tech hubs emerged from the will of tech people to become business people, and are a positive answer to this need. They allow both business-and technology-oriented people to meet and create a start-up. Hubs work as an enabling tool to foster the agency of technology-skilled people in a complex market. This is particularly the case in Africa as entrepreneurship is as complex as necessary to create the millions of jobs sought by the continent’s youth.
Despite some common features there is a large variety of hubs in Africa. Some hubs are created to provide a business space for an extant tech community, whereas others are created to allow the emergence of a tech community. The community in which they are located also influences the way they work and think. The general economic context is also important as countries present different features enabling (or hindering) entrepreneurship. The wide variety of hubs, and their differing purposes and contexts, raises the question of sustainability: are hubs a trend, or are they the first step towards sustainable market change?
A critical factor to assess hub sustainability is funding. Most hubs are funded through donors – mainly foundations. These foundations found hubs as they believe it is a sustainable apath to economic convergence. Besides external funding, hubs can generate their own income through membership fees, hosting events for external parties, delivering consulting services to other organizations, and by investing in the start-ups they incubate in anticipation of some return. In most cases, hubs opt for revenue sharing: they can make money if the company is profitable. Despite many potential sources of funding, no hubs have yet attained operational sustainability in .
Although crucial, financial sustainability is not the only critical factor of success for a hub. Tayo Akinyemi, Director of Afrilabs, a network of 36 tech hubs in Africa, lists three other critical factors of success that determining a hub’s ability to survive beyond proliferation. She explains that a hub should be community-embedded. Some hubs emerge out of an existing community while some aim at creating a new community. In both cases, hubs must keep in mind that serving the community at large – through innovation and growth – is crucial. Hubs must also be able to create concrete output – beyond having a space, the success of the enterprise depends on its ability to incubate many start-ups. This factor is closely related to the ability of the hub to create serendipity: having a good-looking space is not as important as having a space designed to truly enables people to connect, for the magic to .
Hubs are trendy, and is important to keep in mind the relative youth of this concept and be cautious with the sustainability of hubs – both as institutions and as a way to trigger growth. According to Tayo Akinyemi it is highly possible that hubs will create a sustainable shift in Africa’s economy. However, she elucidates; “we are still in the proliferation process, though we still don’t know much about their impacts and sustainability. The hubs that will survive are the one that are able to find their appropriate place in the ecosystem”. Therefore, the success of hubs in Africa will not depend on the concept as such. It will depend more likely on the ability of each and every of them to take place in the community and on the market, to incubate start-ups, generate revenue, and become sustainable.
Watch this space, then!