There were more than 400 active incubators, accelerators and co-working spaces (often collectively referred to as innovation hubs) in 93 cities across 42 countries in Africa by last month.
In the last two years alone, more than 100 new hubs opened across Africa. The arrival of multinational tech giants such as Google and Facebook in the five countries where most of Africa’s early-stage tech start-up activities are concentrated (South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt and Morocco), seems to be spurring local innovation hubs to revamp their business models and offer fixed-period accelerator programmes targeting later stage start-ups – also known as scale-ups.
This presents them with the challenge of integrating with the rest of the continent’s entrepreneurial ecosystem to provide their start-up entrepreneurs with access to corporate business opportunities, expert mentorship, team talent, as well as local and international capital.
Some credit Norwegian serial entrepreneur and Meltwater chief executive Jørn Lyseggen with being a key catalyst for the massive wave of start-up incubation and acceleration activities in the continent.
Lyseggen launched Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (Mest) in Accra, Ghana, in 2008 to help “prove that a new generation of young, successful global software entrepreneurs can originate from Africa”.
Apart from Ghana, Mest has a footprint in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa and last year welcomed its first Francophone entrepreneurs from Côte d’Ivoire into its Accelerator programme.
Two years after Mest launched, the American tech entrepreneur Erik Hersman and his team acted on “a need in Africa to create a nexus point for technologists, investors and tech companies” and launched iHub in Nairobi, Kenya. iHub quickly became one of Africa’s most-publicised tech hubs; a poster child for the African tech hub experience.
iHub managed to secure notable partnerships with the likes of the World Bank Group’s infoDev programme, with whom they launched Traction Camp, a six-month Accelerator programme that supports digital start-ups from Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania.
In 2011, Nigerian innovation architects Bosun Tijani and Femi Longe launched the Co-Creation Hub (CcHub) in Yaba, Lagos, as Nigeria’s first “open living lab and pre-incubation space embracing technologists, social entrepreneurs, government, tech companies, impact investors and hackers”.
Last year, CcHub partnered with Google for Entrepreneurs in PitchDrive, a three-week 20million fund-raising tour of London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Zurich and Paris for 14 African tech start-ups.
More recently, CcHub launched the Giving4Good challenge, designed to explore ways in which technology can increase individual philanthropy towards NGOs and CSOs.
When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made his first-ever visit to sub-Saharan Africa in 2016, he held town hall meetings with entrepreneurs working out of CcHub in Lagos and iHub in Nairobi.
Since Zuckerberg’s Africa call, the continent has seen a marked increase in global tech players participating in hub-based innovation programmes and within Africa’s entrepreneurial ecosystem at large.
For Africa’s innovation hubs to keep adding significant economic value within the ecosystem, they will need to accelerate moving away from their traditional, grant-maintained, self-contained “eagle flying solo” service delivery method of ideation, resourcing, and operations. They need to embrace a new “lions in a pride” outlook to value-create for their start-ups and scale-ups. —The writer is co-founder and president of African Business Angel Network.