Incubating Africa’s start-up talent

The past two years has seen the steady growth of things that are variously called innovation hubs, incubators and accelerators. They are now creating support networks that give ICT entrepreneurs a much better chance of survival.

This week Russell Southwood spoke to Josiah Eyison and reflects of the continuing dangers for this ecosystem.

iSpace came out of a conversation between Ghanaian developers for the need for a space to meet and the lack of reliable internet connectivity. Eyison took that conversation to heart and decided to set up iSpace: “We will be able to support graduates who donít know where to go. We can support start-ups who donít make it to MEST or the Kumasi Tech Hub.”

“Anyone can use the co-location space but we don’t want it to simply turn into a free Internet cafe so there will be a membership and we will talk to those wanting to join about what theyíre trying to achieve and their vision.”

It is run as a social enterprise that offers developers, entrepreneurs (not always the same thing) and those in creative industries connections, resources and training. Based on Oxford Street in Accraís Osu district and covering an entire floor, it gives a visible public presence to all three of these mutually overlapping communities:îIt has a beautiful view over the city and out towards the sea.î

The idea of having creative industries alongside was that the media (whether TV, radio or press) are not very familiar always with ICT and the developer community is currently largely but not completely invisible. The assumption is that if you get the two alongside each other, then there will be a synergy, whether itís with media or film or music.

So far it has attracted 6 start-ups and has a co-working space that can accommodate 60 people. The start-ups include: a start-up focused on booking cinema and event tickets; one focused on finding restaurants and another on teaching code to children.

iSpace has attracted funding from the Indigo Trust and ATTI is part of the Google partnership for entrepreneurs. In due course it wants to be able to set up its own UX Lab to help provide research for developers before they start writing apps.

In Senegal, Jokko Labs has begun to roll out a similar formula both within Senegal itself and into other francophone countries on a open franchise model. It does not deal just with ICT but looks more widely at other areas of innovation. Its founder Karim Sy says that it will soon open a Jokko Lab in an abnglophone country, which will be an exciting development, crossing one of the continent’s continuing divides.

In my heart, I want to see this flourishing of entrepreneurial talent (and best can and have succeeded) but my head can see the many significant barriers that need to be tackled. The OS and handset market is incredibly fragmented, making all but the development of SMS apps a really tough call.

Transaction processes remain in the hands of the mobile operators. Their current greed on deal structure (which to be fair, is changing a little) is holding back getting money into the ecosystem.

Developers are not entrepreneurs and vice versa. Too many developers are designing apps for their friends or for problems they think exist but which take a very different for. Unless these diverse new communities (developers, entrepreneurs, creative industries) can articulate what they need and argue for it, they will find themselves up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

Funding fashions change and a lot of hubs will disappear unless they start tackling the fundamentals of building the ecosystem.

By Balancing Act

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Incubating Africa’s start-up talent