From Kenya to Madagascar: The African tech-hub boom

Viewpoint by Erik Hersman
Technologist, blogger, co-founder of Ushahidi

image caption, Where the magic happens: iHub in Kenya is just one of several technology centres across Africa

There's a buzz, a palpable energy, running through the corridors of Africa's capitals and urban areas, and much of it revolves around tech.

What happens when smartphones outsell computers four to one, and 50% of a continent's population is below the age of 20?

You have a technology-literate mobile generation unlike any that has come before.

This week finds me in Botswana.

I've talked to a couple of start-up entrepreneurs - Pule Mmolotsi, who is testing out an Oyster-like card for public transportation in the country, and Katy Digovich, who is creating apps for the Ministry of Health.

They represent what I continue to see across the continent - a new generation trying new ideas and taking to technology.

African governments aren't fast or savvy enough to build the infrastructure needed to support this type of entrepreneurial tech activity.

Academic institutions are woefully behind in teaching skills for computer science and design.

So where do people like Pule and Katy go? What mechanisms support their start-ups and connect them to capital, businesses and their peers?

Incubators and accelerators

If you had asked that question two years ago, the answer would have been: "Very little."

But in the past two years there has been an interesting phenomenon in Africa - the proliferation of tech hubs and incubators.

These range from incubation and training spaces like MEST Ghana to co-working environments such as ActivSpaces in Cameroon, and community spaces like the Co-Creation Hub in Nigeria.

Governments are involved, with places like the Botswana Innovation Hub here in Gaberone, and some academic institutions are jumping in, like we see with the Strathmore iLab in Nairobi.

There are now more than 50 tech hubs, labs, incubators and accelerators in Africa, covering more than 20 countries. In Nairobi, we have six.

I've had a front-row seat as the founder of the iHub in Nairobi, where four years ago we had an idea and built a space that now has more than 8,000 members and holds approximately 120 events per year.

We sit at the centre of Kenya's tech community, where our role is to serve as a connection point and support the phenomenal hi-tech growth in the country.

Last year five of these tech hubs founded AfriLabs , an umbrella body that allows investors and media to connect more quickly to the tech activity in each of the countries that houses a member lab. There are now 14 member labs across 10 countries.

image caption, The Kenyan iHub hosts about 120 events a year and has more than 8,000 members

At the iHub, we've built strong relationships with some of Kenya's top companies, including Zuku, Nokia, Google, Nation Media Group, Safaricom, InMobi, MIH and Samsung.

Suit and tie

We also have a great relationship with the government, through the Kenya ICT Board and the permanent secretary for information and communication, and we have strong ties with Strathmore and Stanford Universities.

But if we had waited for the government to create the iHub in Kenya, we would still be waiting today.

image caption, The new face of African technology is more than enough to tempt huge companies to take the scene seriously

We often joke that in Nairobi people don't think you have a job unless you wear a suit and tie and head to the city centre each day.

In a world where suits and ties are expected, who provides the space for the next generation to work, build companies and be taken seriously as start-up coder wearing ripped jeans and a T-shirt?

Innovation comes from the edges, so it comes as no surprise that innovators are found in the margins. They are the misfits among us, the ones who see and do things differently.

The tech hubs in Africa provide a home for those with new and innovative ideas, create an atmosphere where they are encouraged to try new things, and most importantly are able to meet like-minded individuals they can grow with.

Erik Hersman is a technologist and blogger living in Nairobi. As well as being co-founder of the ground-breaking mapping website Ushahidi, he also founded the iHub, Nairobi's thriving technology centre. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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