Lessons From Southern African Incubators

Lessons From Southern African Incubators

Last November, I was fortunate to be one of the Southern Africa Ampion Venture Bus participants. This is an initiative that brings together business experts, designers and developers on one bus that travels throughout a region of Africa (North, South, East and West) – passing through at least three countries in the region and ending

Last November, I was fortunate to be one of the Southern Africa Ampion Venture Bus participants. This is an initiative that brings together business experts, designers and developers on one bus that travels throughout a region of Africa (North, South, East and West) – passing through at least three

countries in the region and ending at a notable technology conference or gathering.

Important to note is the fact that the bus will stop at various innovation spaces or tech hubs or incubators within the countries allowing the passengers to get a feel of the start-up community and ecosystem in each nation, at least as represented by the hubs.

Our route was Botswana -Namibia- South Africa, culminating with the pitching event on the sidelines of AfricaCom, a huge annual technology conference.

Among my many motivations for applying for this cohort was the need to understand my southern African terrain. Here are the learning points from each stop.

Lessons from Botswana

We spent a decent amount of time at the Botswana Innovation Hub (BIH). I have seen a reasonable number of hubs in Beijing, Berlin and a few states in North America and can comfortably say, the BIH facilities will give many of them a run for their money!

The facilities are immaculate and ambient – excellent for meet-ups and incubation of several small businesses.

The present location is adjacent to a major shopping mall in Gaborone in a great neighbourhood and they are in the process of building an even larger technology park.

The awesome news is that the space was conceptualised by the Botswana government to nurture local creativity and innovation, due to feeling the impact of global economic downturn in 2008.

They focus on a range of sectors that directly speak to national economic development. Internal meetings are consistent and resident start-ups are very much connected and share entrepreneurial energy.

In addition, they deliberately periodically open up to the community to attend events such as business meet-ups and demo days.

Prior to our time there, we had pitched our start-up ideas at the University of Botswana, where we were toured some really cool labs stocked with good computers, one was completely full of the latest desktop Macs, purchased with the idea of supporting young people’s tech dreams, innovations and ideas through granting them access to workspace and internet connections.

The university officials were present to appreciate the projects we were working on, and we spent a long time interacting with them as they shared their aspirations for promoting innovation at a local level.

The greatest take-away from Botswana was that innovation spaces can and must work with government investment and participation as an enabler and resource sponsor through centres of learning and standalone purpose built hubs.

Lessons from Namibia

The landscape in Windhoek was no different with clear government and private sector collaboration.

We worked and pitched our progress at the NBII Mobile Lab located at the Polytechnic of Namibia Innovation Village, a very simple but profound setup that includes a testing centre stocked with various mobile devices.

Again, it was very apparent that everyone was coming to the party. The local innovation space players all congregated in the same room and took time to share how they all contribute towards a common startup ecosystem.

Hosts were The Tech guys a startup that seeks to grow the tech ecosystem in Namibia, and they brought in academics, government officials and sponsor corporates for the days hackathon and pitching.

The contribution of each party to the event was apparent, including the free meals, drinks, hotel accommodation and Wi-Fi and the presentations were seamless, an indicator that this was not hurriedly put together for a show.

It’s no wonder that the Ampion Venture Bus for Southern Africa this year will start its trip from Namibia, the community is solid, connected, willing and ready and everyone who matters is on board – and that is a learning point for our local ecosystem.

Another important takeaway is how they actively were seeking to engage and pursue partnerships across SADC to enable their innovations to scale much more easily.

Lessons from South Africa

The final frontier was in Cape Town at a business accelerator called Startup 90, which focuses on launching high growth, high impact startups.

Their model focuses on seed and early stage startups that utilise web and mobile technologies to solve social and economic challenges in Africa. We had to pitch before a panel on investors.

Right there is the learning point. Innovation requires support, also in the form of capital and cash to burn as you build a prototype and then a working model.

We need investors to come in to complete the puzzle, not ordinary banks and bankers who generally may not get it, but investment from players already in the space who can both finance and mentor new innovators.

Very interesting was the fact that the accelerator works with up to 8 startups only for the year – and that should speak a lot about the expectation in terms of churning our entrepreneurs – this is not a numbers game! A few high growth, high impact initiatives are what we need and we can focus available resources on those first – by this I mean our entrepreneurship training initiatives must not necessarily include thousands but a select few, our youth funds must not give small amounts to thousands of applicants but rather invest in a few good projects.

Insights for Zimbabwe

Overall, our Zimbabwean market is not large enough, in my view, to scale and hope to make millions from an app or other start-up; and one must seek scale both locally and beyond borders if they can.

The SADC region is a good start seeing as we are under one bloc and are interconnected, with several parallels.

Any innovations we make must work beyond borders if they are to meaningfully contribute to economic development.

We have excellently executed a replica of mobile money but we don’t leverage it as much as the forerunners do – in fact some local products are rated second after mpesa which we try so hard to emulate.

On the same score, the mobile money companies have not invested themselves as much in supporting start-ups through say, a venture fund that seeks to invest in the ‘growing mobile development space as well as innovative, local based solutions that have viable commercial application, “and here I quote the words of a director for Innovation and Strategy of Kenyan telecoms company Safaricom.

Other publications will show that this move was well received and appreciated by the local tech community as a show of good faith after the all too familiar accusation of them stealing ideas.

This is a bold yet smart move, premised on the understanding that innovation occurs on the fringes and tapping into that when

To triangulate lessons from experiencing all three ecosystems, I would bring in a best practice comparison -Kenya, hosted the just ended Global Entrepreneurship Congress and iHub the just turned five years hub and pioneer space in Africa as a benchmark.

The Kenyan take pride in local innovation and have a clear sense of community with tangible collaboration by start-ups, innovation spaces/tech hubs/incubators, government and private sector.

Mutual respect for what best serves the innovation and tech spaces as well as promotes national economic development is apparent.

I have no time or space to give my thoughts on a current hot topic – net neutrality – save to pose this question: what is best for the nation and its people, and is that guiding all the players in the startup and small business ecosystem?

In this season of massive job cuts, entrepreneurship will be the saving grace for creating new jobs and we need shared vision, responsible execution from all parties: government as an enabler through utilising available real estate as innovation centres, appropriate policy supporting innovation and maybe policing monopolies.

Private sector too appreciating they can perpetuate their own growth by innovations at the fringes and using their available resources to rather invest in those who can best push ideas to their zenith, succeed and employ others, than trying their hand at everything and being a master of none.

Innovators building functional start-ups that solve real, difficult and important problems, under the care and guidance of hubs.

That is called community and collaboration, and as the old adage says: it takes a village to raise a child – and indeed it takes a vibrant ecosystem to bring national economic development. Let us learn from others and build Zimbabwe from the bottom up!

 

This piece was written by Kudzai M. Mubaiwa. She is an economic development professional and managing consultant of InvestorSaint (Pvt) Ltd, a financial education company. She is also a certified incubator manager and co-founder of iZone. Kudzai can be reached via e-mail on [email protected] or Twitter handle @kumub

 

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