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  • Writer's pictureCarter Darper

African tech and innovation hubs, let’s work together to make the Next Big Thing come out of Africa

There are A LOT of interesting things happening in the innovations, entrepreneurship and ICT fields in Africa. I had the privilege of representing  iLab Liberia at a meeting of the Afrilabs network of tech & innovation hubs in Africa last weekend, as a pre-event to the Global Innovation Lounge of the re:publica conference, in Berlin, going on this week. There were all in all about a dozen African labs present and meeting for the very first time.

Africa is not one story or one market. However, the choir of our voices can be louder together. As later mentioned by one of our hosts, GIZ’s Christian Gmelin, having Erik Hersman open up the huge re:publica digital media conference with a keynote “Innovating Africa”  turns the typical setup to a new direction – it was not the West talking about Africa and spreading there but rather a story of how Africans innovate at all levels of the society. Hersman presented some of the developments in Africa, highlighting that ideas and innovations come from the edge, from outfits and the disruptors – this means that we need to be on the lookout to learn from anyone – and the powerholder corporations, beware! And right now, there is a lot happening in Africa - and there are now more efforts to work collaboratively across the continent

So what’s in it for iLab?

The meeting and the conference were energizers, eye-openers and door-openers.

First, it was absolutely great to feel the energy amongst peers – all the hubs have a community of their own – but now there is also a network of hubs that makes us stronger, as we the users of the labs are getting to…well, thousands, if not perhaps already tens of thousands! And that makes for a powerful feeling of doing things together, around the continent.

Secondly, discussing with peers and hearing and seeing the stories at each of the places was – in addition to being entertaining - very thought-provoking and a learning experience.

Some of the key trends and developments that we discussed included:

-          Hubs moving up in the value-creation chain, i.e. moving gradually from being tech and coworking centers to being incubation and accelerator hubs, places that coach and develop companies (of course, not everyone has to be like that. At iLab, we are not quite yet at a phase where 5 or 10 startups could be incubated at iLab – but we are moving towards a pre-incubation phase, having various events and programs in place that encourage entrepreneurs to work together and it won’t be long before we have the first set of companies working out of iLab.

-          Hubs thinking about sustainable funding and business models – how hubs generate all or a substantial portion of their income by their own activities in a moderate time. As for iLab, this year’s budget is not fully covered by grants – we are looking to generate as much as 15-25% of our budget through various paid services.

-          It’s certainly not just “traditional IT” that these tech and innovation hubs are embracing: hubs that foster social innovations, physical computing and hacking/making and green technology had some of the most creative things happening. ILab is just starting out and experimenting on physical computing (Starting next week!) but already knowing that some of the other hubs have, there are great possibilities to learn

Thirdly,  the Afrilabs meeting and the joint Global Innovation Lounge at re:publica was a about initiating new contacts and collaborations – both in terms of collaboration between the various hubs on the continent, but also between hubs and donors, venture capitalists, academics and so on. We started our first collaboration with Hive Colab in Uganda, regarding Girls in ICT and more specifically Girls in Programming.

Pictures? Oh yeah, hub manager from around the world in action

Workshopping at Supermarkt. It used to be an abandoned Supermarket in a run-down area. Now several spaces in the area have been taken over by creative industry professionals and the areas has revived as well. It’s a great place for co-working and doing workshops.

Springtime in Berlin, very pleasurable weather. Whenever doing groupwork, most preferred to talk outside. The sun is good for creative thinking!

Some of the results from the first day: how do we make Afrilabs, the network of African tech and innovation hubs as success story.

The second day: after getting a few more into the city, the hubs briefly presented themselves, some of their unique features and challenges – to launch workshops on the most mentioned topics.

Topics of the second day.

The hubs that were present at the event.

The Global Innovation Lounge is not about flashy corporate style, but rather business and innovations coming from the grassroots. We demonstrated this feel by “hacking and making” our area at the conference – with inexpensive materials and a big heart. Jay Cousins from ICECairo leading the pack.

So…we all got our handmade pillows made.

Erik Hersman delivering the keynote: “Innovating Africa” and claiming that the statmakers got it all wrong – patent statistics are not really the way to define where innovations are happening.

This is what an early phase innovation might look like – a DIY 13-phase security system.

From a VERY early proto to a crowdfunding capable production version – the BRCK from Ushahidi

The crowd was gathering at the Lounge, it was busy most of the time

African hubs and their managers.

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