As Africa gears itself for an IT revolution, a number of innovation spaces in Kenya are quickly positioning the country as a regional leader in technology and it is hard for this growth to go unnoticed globally. The thriving entrepreneurial environment and the need to create more employment opportunities for the youth; that contribute about 9.1 million and account for about 32% of the population; is perhaps the force behind the bustling technological innovation spaces. A question I keep asking myself is why are there many innovation spaces popping up every now and then, are they solving a need or responding to the hype? According to recent research, a new African hub is springing up nearly every two weeks.
The Kenyan Success Story
Apart from the larger-than-life and ever evolving money transfer service, M-Pesa; Kenya has also received a lot of recognition due to the rapid rise of innovations spaces mushrooming, the first of its kind in Africa being *iHub-Nairobi which resulted out of the tech community needing space and resources. Previously, developers were forced to meet in coffee shops and restaurants that had limited WiFi connection. These meeting places had a couple of challenges in that they were expensive for developers to work from there, as they had to buy something to either eat or drink. Additionally, there were many distractions that arose from the restaurants. Since its inception, the iHub has expanded into new initiatives such as iHub-Consulting, iHub Cluster and iHub Research, registered thousands of members, and become the meeting place in East Africa for the tech community, investors, business people and venture capitalists to meet and interact through opportunities and events.
The iHub Success Story
iHub’s success so far can be defined in these upcoming initiatives as mentioned above. In addition, having registered more than 8,000+ virtual members who interact via the web platform, 240 green members who physically access the space, 9 red members who pay for a semi-permanent desk space for a period of 6 to 12 months. Subsequently, there are 5 startups (that I know of) sitting in iHub, who form part of the 101 who interact with their online platform, some of these started in the iHub and have now matured to be incubated in upcoming incubation centres such as Mlab, GrowthHub, iLab and Nailab. Other startups have further graduated to their own offices such as KopoKopo and Mfarm.
iHub’s success metrics may be completely different to metrics defining success across other Hubs in Africa. Yet their success has inadvertently inspired similar innovation Hubs to sprout up across Africa, and many are striving to meet iHub standards and/or replicate its model of implementation as they try to meet their members expectations and remain sustainable. I have had many guests from other countries in Africa, who have sat down with me to help them understand the iHub model with an objective to implement the same model in their own countries.
The question many of these guests forget to ask themselves is Can the success of iHub be replicated? No and Maybe
The success from one Hub to another varies on various factors
By taking the examples of the Innovation spaces mushrooming across Africa, it becomes easy to understand why one hub succeeds while another finds it next to impossible to get it right. One major finding that iHub Research has noted in the ICT Hubs study so far, is that different hubs are made up of different models with different components that impact differently to their members. The success of each Hub/Lab also varies based on other external factors that contribute to the ICT growth of the country: ICT GDP, ICT support from the government, level of corruption, good infrastructure, ICT budgetary allocation, telecommunication investments and the innovation thirst of a country among others.
A Hub’s Success : The Internal factors matters
In addition to the external factors; the success of each Hub is defined by metrics that only apply to them, that have been put to define their growth exponentially. This growth is what contributes to their ability to have stable resources such as fast internet connectivity, more investments opportunities, conducive environment and sustainability as the core factors that drive the implementation of a successful Hub that then attracts multitudes of members.
It also goes without saying that a massive community of talented young members who are the core of the Hub model is crucial to a hub’s success. This then allows the hub to attract more members, investors, government and other key stakeholders needed in the ecosystem to shape the hub by playing key roles before ‘competing’ with the rest in Africa. These stakeholders are the ones who will help nurture the hub by mentoring the young mind-sets by working closely with them and provide useful resources and expertise that will help scale their businesses into success.
In my opinion, before defining if a Hub is successful or not it’s important to keep the following factors in mind:
- Reason for existence: Why do they exist? Is there a need they are trying to solve? What is their vision?
- Implementation strategy: How have they built the Hub through clear structures and operating procedures?
- Team: Are the employees skilled and passionate to be part of building and driving the Hub’s model?
- Location: Is the location strategic enough to attract young talents from academia institutions?
- Community Engagement: How do they engage their community of members? Do members feel they have ownership of the space?
- Activities and events: How do their events and activities add value to their members? Do they get feedback from members on what other activities and events to facilitate in the space?
- Feedback and monitoring mechanisms in place: Do they take time to gather and listen to the feedback from their community of members and incorporate their ideas as well?
- Sustainability strategy: What is their short term and long term sustainability model?
- Open Innovation culture: How have they promoted the open innovation culture?
- Collaborations and Partnerships: Have they embraced any collaboration and partnerships with other local institutions such as universities, local investors, government, experts in the ICT field?
- Innovations of their members: What innovations are the members working on? are those innovations sustainable and successful?
- Resources: What are the kind of resources they provide to their community of members and how fast, efficient and of value they are to benefit the members that will contribute to their innovations sustainability and brand positioning e.g high speed internet, mentorship ,testing facilities etc ?
- Value Adding Strategies: Do they have strategies implemented to solving their challenges that will then ensure continuos recommendations that will add value to the members of the community?
It’s time Hubs (existing and new ones) realized that they are operating in different contexts: type and number of community members, culture, different support and infrastructure and different level of commitment of other useful stakeholders in their ecosystem. They should therefore work at building their community of entrepreneurs and nurturing them by meeting their needs instead of competing to be the best or ‘most successful’ or having the largest numbers.
What is more important is for the ICT hubs to work together in collective synergies and learn from each other keeping in mind if it works for one Hub, it may not work for the other. It’s very hard to replicate success, but by learning from each other’s Hub and their initiatives and working closely with the community of members who are talented and energetic then this success journey can easily be achieved and replicated uniquely in each Hub.