A lot has already been written about the emergence of tech hubs across Africa. Many have attempted to map major players in the growing ecosystem including Julia Manske in a report for Vodafone and Tim Kelly of the World Bank. By the end of the summer, I will have had the opportunity to visit five major labs including the iHub, Nailab, and m:lab in Nairobi, the Hive Colab in Kampala, and Jozihub in Johannesburg. With each visit comes a better understanding of how these open workspaces, tinker shops, and innovation incubators work.
While most tech hubs operate as independent institutions, many are connected through a larger umbrella network called AfriLabs. According to their website, “AfriLabs exists to support the growth of communities around African technology hubs and to encourage expansion of the network by providing tools and resources for new and emerging labs.” It is exciting to see AfriLabs link best practices and best people across countries and disciplines, connecting disparate dots throughout the continent.
But despite this environment of excitement, I continue to encounter a persistent question: Are these labs actually creating an impact? Thanks to the support of programs like Fletcher’s Blakeley and Empower Fellowships, I have used part of my time this summer to unpack this complex question. Measuring impact—whether through job creation or national economic growth—is challenging. Connecting specific data points with the establishment of a tech hub is thorny at best, and therefore, I will not claim to make this link. At least not yet. Instead, I can tell you that my initial research points to something less measurable but certainly not less meaningful: Tech hubs in Africa catalyze community. They serve as a magnet, drawing in sharp people with promising ideas. As iHub founder Erik Hersman told me during an interview a few weeks ago, “The iHub was always designed to be a community space first. When you put cool people, in a cool place, cool things will happen.”
I agree with Erik. In a previous blog post I underscored my belief that tech hubs act as community fabricators. Similar to interest groups or neighborhood associations, hubs and their associated events offer techies room to connect and grow. For Jason Eisen, the CEO of a Kenyan transportation startup called Maramoja, a recent pitching competition and conference provided this space. He noted, “Pivot East helped us pick up our heads and see the full potential of Kenya’s tech ecosystem.” Jason went on to note that events like Pivot and places like the iHub “allow the tech community to interface with the larger community.” At the end of the day, community remains at the heart of the tech hub success story.
Fine. Community is important, but what lies ahead? Personally, I hope to see two major trends—a new emphasis on business skills and more opportunities for hands-on management experience at established multinational corporations. During discussions with several coders, investors, and hub managers I kept hearing the same thing: We must build entrepreneurs with applicable business skill sets. Today, many African tech startups lack basic skills critical to running a functioning business like understanding financials, nimbly negotiating a contract, and leading a team. I wrote a recent piece for the Fletcher Forum that discusses this skills gap.
Second, Africa’s tech labs need to establish stronger links with known employers. Ideally, I would love to see big names like Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, and Techno hiring their local workforce out of Africa’s tech hubs. In turn, these hubs should establish a career counseling service similar to Fletcher’s Office of Career Services. This carve-out could prep community members for case interviews, help them whip up one-page resumes, and connect them to hiring employers.
At the end of our interview, Jason said something that really stuck with me. “Today hubs have a huge focus on entrepreneurship—but a limited focus on placing people into professional jobs.” Moving forward, let’s ensure that tech hub incubatees have the right balance of tech skills, business acumen, and actual corporate experience to fuel positive change.