By Chrissy Martin, Guest Columnist
Silicon Savannah. Maybe you’ve heard this term (maybe you’ve even read why it’s a misnomer.) It has been coined to describe Nairobi, Kenya, the unofficial capital of the rapid rise of technology innovation in Africa.
Kenya is home to M-Pesa, the mobile money transfer service that is used by over 60% of the Kenyan population. It is also home to the iHub, an innovation and start-up incubator which appears to be increasingly like Silicon Valley in its ability to spin off successful, profitable technology companies.
But Kenya is not the only African country experiencing the technology revolution, nor is iHub the only innovation lab. In fact, there are at least 91, according to this CrowdMap which is crowdsourcing all of the technology hubs and incubators across the continent.
Many of these other hubs are struggling to live up to the high expectations set in Nairobi. It turns out that the role of an innovation hub is highly context specific, and while tech hubs in other countries may operate differently, many are creating real impact for young Africans on shoestring budgets and little international attention.
Supporting Zambia’s Emerging Entrepreneurs
I’ve had the pleasure of visiting one such innovation hub, the Bongo Hive, in Zambia several times now. The Bongo Hive is an innovation hub which aspires to support the tech community in Zambia. It was started about two years ago and is run under the inspiring, volunteer leadership of Lukonga Lindunda. Lukonga, a young government employee who saw a need, started the hub off of in-kind donations of a few computers and a temporary space. They now have their own building and a consistent activity stream of trainings, Hackathons, and networking events. There is one clear difference between the Bongo Hive and the iHub: in Kenya, there already was a tech community before the iHub, and this community was craving a gathering space.
In Zambia, there is no existing tech community. BongoHive had to create the community from the ground-up – which results in an entirely different purpose and set of challenges than those that faced the creators of the iHub. In Zambia, many of the those who come to the tech hub are young, recent university graduates, with few job prospects due to the high unemployment in the country. Therefore, the greatest success of the Bongo Hive, thus far, has been providing a space for these young graduates to join an informal learning environment where they can practice programming, network, and subsequently gain employable skills (in addition to creating the map of the Hubs in Africa above ).
In fact, in its first two years, even without significant funds, it has had real impact on the lives of young people who are now gainfully employed, thanks to the experience gained by simply showing up and programming. BongoHive is now moving to the next step. It has now secured funding from Google and is starting to connect young entrepreneurs with business opportunities, albeit on a smaller scale than the iHub. In addition, BongoHive is building connections between its new community and other communities: for example, it is now working with Zambian artists and photographers to build websites for them to showcase and sell their work.
The innovation hubs I’ve seen outside of Kenya — including the BongoHive, the iLab in Liberia, and the Ayiti Living Lab in Haiti — realize that their mandate is one of social change and of building a community that is not yet tangible, and equally, of building the confidence of young people. This is true, locally-driven innovation -- and it will help to ensure that the benefits of Africa’s technology revolution are more evenly distributed.
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Chrissy Martin is a mobile financial services specialist and project manager at MEDA, an international non-profit committed to finding business solutions to poverty.