Africa’s Innovation Ecosystem: Growing Pains

(This post was originally published on Medium)

This week, the first ever gathering of African hubs and other innovation ecosystem actors on African soil is taking place in Accra, Ghana. This is an important moment, considering recent events that have brought to the surface tough conversations on purpose and ethics in the ecosystem. The gathering is being hosted by AfriLabs, a consortium organization that was set up back in 2011 to be a platform for collaboration, exchange and learning between actors in the African ecosystem. However, AfriLabs is itself undergoing a re-boot. It has struggled since inception to tangibly deliver value to its member hubs (there are at the moment 40 member hubs across 20 countries). In 2016 the organization has restructured, setting up a secretariat in Nigeria and engaging hubs through regional events in the build-up to this gathering. Much of the conversation about AfriLabs is questioning its legitimacy, given that it lost credibility by failing to deliver on initial (high) expectations.

Recent Significant Events

For one, iHub, to which many other hubs on the continent look for cues, is redefining itself with leadership from a new CEO. After 6 years, it became clear that the old model on which it was running was not sustainable. The context has changed, and so should the organization. There is a lot of reflection going on in Nairobi about the mistakes and successes of iHub. On what these show about the tech community in general and on what the possibilities are for the future. The Angani drama triggered much of this debate and self-reflection on issues ranging from governance, ethics and neocolonialism. This is a time of introspection.

Meanwhile in Nigeria, ccHub has launched an accelerator fund and a new education-focused innovation hub in Abuja. It is scaling. It has demonstrated what a social innovation hub in Africa looks like when it grows up. There are lessons to be learned from the journey of ccHub that would be useful for the ecosystem as a whole. They are the first to demonstrate what sustainability looks like for a hub. Yet that is only one portrait of what is possible. There is still room for other hubs to demonstrate alternative pathways.

Where to go from Here?

There are now hundreds of innovation hubs across the continent. What are they up to exactly? Is it time to expand the conceptual scope of hubs from simply framing them as tech innovation hubs? What has their impact been and what is the potential for scaling? These are some of the questions I hear being raised in conversations. Here are some thoughts on next steps, some of which have been said by others before:

  1. Mapping of the nature and scope of work that different hubs are doing would be useful in helping to understand exactly what the landscape looks like and spotting any patterns. For example, are there similarities between hubs’ operating models in regions and does this have anything to do with contextual similarities?
  2. Understanding what their impact has been on relationships between actors like government, higher education institutions, investors, corporates, citizen communities, civil society organizations and the media would be interesting in assessing their tangible impact and possible areas of further influence.
  3. Seeking to understand what works best for accelerating startups in Africa. Which innovations have successfully scaled out after being incubated in these hubs? Why have they been successful? Which approaches to incubation work and which ones don’t work?
  4. Learning lessons on sustainability. How are hubs keeping the lights on? Which hubs are sustainable and why is this the case?

Invest in Research and Learning

Hubs are no-longer the new suspicious kid on the block. They have been around long enough to learn from their mistakes and develop to the next stage as an institution in the African landscape. They perform functions that intersect with education, policy-making, research, business acceleration and social impact. Therefore they break down the silos that prevent innovation from taking place.

If anyone in the ecosystem is going to benefit from the existence of hubs in the long term, there is a need to invest now in understanding them. This is the only way to generate sufficient information and understanding to chart a path forward with regard to innovation. Because hubs are here to stay. There’s interesting work already going on in this regard, but this is only the beginning.

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