In Africa, areas such as internal and international trade, banking and finance, communications, health, and logistics, etc.; are some of the areas which have been highly impacted by technology and innovation. Clearly, the brilliant ideas and solutions we see today are not born out of a vacuum. New opportunities, better access, and inclusion for all, as well as speed and efficiency of operations, are notable solutions of today; simply because our tech hubs have been kept alive and abuzz with innovative ideas to improve the status quo.
These hubs, which serve as incubators, accelerators, and other forms of innovation centres are making strides in proffering solutions to Africa’s most pressing development challenges in different sectors, thereby transforming the living standards of Africans in significant ways. By contributing to the development of successful entrepreneurial ecosystems, these hubs make an impact in real-time, practical terms, and not just in theory. These are pointers to the fact that Africa is advancing, with tech and innovation as the key propellers.
Obviously, these rising tech hubs are of great potential and their impact cannot be of much use if they do not survive. And yes, it takes targeted support to see tech hubs survive. Essentially, tech hubs provide a space where high-tech business growth can be accelerated and in turn, bring prosperity to the community. With foresight and experience, they help in building community, fostering collaboration, welcoming diversity, and catalysing innovation within their spaces. The success of tech hubs does not happen by chance either. They can be largely attributed to network bodies/organizations that are specifically set up to be key drivers and significant contributors to the sustainability of the technology and innovation ecosystem in Africa. Research has shown that network organizations that support the survival and growth of tech hubs do so by providing funding resources, support systems, infrastructure, culture, policy and regulatory framework, education, and markets.
One of such network organizations striving to accelerate the technological landscape in Africa today is AfriLabs – a Pan-African community and connector of African tech hubs. Founded in 2011, AfriLabs was born from the need to build a community around rapidly emerging tech hubs― essentially, the innovation spaces that serve as meeting points and communities for developers, startups, entrepreneurs, and investors. AfriLabs’ operations kicked off with only 5 hubs in 4 countries, with the sole purpose of providing sustainable support for African innovators to help raise high potential entrepreneurs that will stimulate economic growth and social development in Africa. In ten years, the network organization has recorded astronomical growth and currently has over 300 member hubs across 51 African countries in its portfolio and still counting.
Here are the 4 key channels through which the organization has driven the growth of tech and innovation in Africa:
- The power of a vibrant community: Leveraging a community of collective intelligence is a major way AfriLabs is enabling tech and innovation in Africa. Over the years, AfriLabs has built a strong network of thriving tech communities. By running one of the largest tech communities that provide members access to a well-connected network of innovators and tech entrepreneurs across Africa, AfriLabs is able to drive collaboration with teams across different sectors, particularly on innovation projects and activities. An example of an initiative that leverages the power of its vibrant community is the AfriLabs Annual Gathering, held annually since 2016. The AfriLabs Annual Gathering provides a unique opportunity for hubs in the AfriLabs network and other stakeholders in the African tech ecosystem to convene, network, share knowledge around a common theme and build partnerships. Another example is the AfriLabs Candid Conversations, which are online panel sessions where leaders of the technology and innovation ecosystem in Africa share their knowledge and experience with the community on important and sensitive issues on how African innovation enablers, policymakers, donors, and other stakeholders can do better for the innovation economy in Africa.
- Capacity Building: Over the years, AfriLabs has carried out extensive research to ascertain the needs of African tech hubs. Based on this research, AfriLabs designs and runs a series of initiatives targeting hubs across Africa. These initiatives have now been updated and expanded into the AfriLabs Capacity Building Programme (ACBP), which is carried out with the support of Agence Française de Développement’s 2 million euros capacity building project, through the Digital Africa seed fund. Key activities include physical training workshops, peer-to-peer learning, funding, and certification. The goal of the program is to strengthen member hubs, thereby contributing to growing the African innovation ecosystem while increasing the percentage of successful and investment-ready start-ups on the continent. Also, part of the ACBP is the AfriLabs Hubs Learning Week is a series of peer-to-peer capacity building virtual workshops that empower innovation hub managers and staff with requisite and formal incubation management training and skills needed to start, operate, and expand hubs/innovation centres in Africa. As of the first quarter of 2021, five (5) series of the Hubs Learning Week have taken place with over 2000 participants including Hub managers and Hub staff in 54 countries in Africa and 2 countries in the diaspora have attended the Learning Week.
- Access to funding and resources: For innovation to thrive, it needs adequate funding. Beyond facilitating collaborations and partnerships that accelerate the tech ecosystem in Africa, AfriLabs also provides access to funding for tech start-ups in Africa to promote and support innovators. In 2020 alone, the network gave over 279,000 Euros in grants to community members and has provided support to over 212 start-ups – 78% of whom are female-led. Another example is the recent launch of Catalytic Africa, an investment tool that aims to increase the pool of capital available to promising African growth-stage entrepreneurs, support the startup ecosystem, and increase the visibility of impact to institutional funders. This co-matching investment was developed by AfriLabs in collaboration with the African Business Angels Network (ABAN) and designed to fund African start-ups with innovative digital solutions and measurable impact.
- Influencing policy across Africa: AfriLabs is also renowned for driving policy advocacy to help shape the future of tech in Africa. The organization supports its community members to partner with national governments, regional bodies, and local & international non-governmental policy advocates to seed policies that help nurture the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem. AfriLabs is currently Influencing policy in five African countries including Mali, Senegal, Niger, Nigeria & Rwanda. AfriLabs also harnesses partnerships to achieve this. Their recent partnership with the United Nations Development Programme Accelerator Labs to drive innovation policy in Africa is a great example.
As the tech landscape in Africa continues to evolve, network organizations like AfriLabs are vital, as they will not only help to close the connectivity and funding gap that often stall the growth of tech companies across the continent; but will also provide support for the development of the African technology and innovation ecosystem, through initiatives that will drive increased tech and innovation acceleration on the continent. This will in turn enable Africa to participate in the global knowledge and innovation market thereby stimulating her socio-economic growth.