The new and old buildings of Uganda’s oldest university, Makerere University, occupy an entire hill. In 2011 Makerere University became the first university in sub-Saharan Africa to have a Microsoft Innovation Center. The construction of the centre was as a result of a partnership between The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and Microsoft to establish innovation hubs across Africa. Makerere University, a public university, provided the space and local expertise for this facility to be setup.
by Mark Keith Muhumuza
At the back of the organisers’ minds, the centre was meant to work as an incubator for innovation. A training facility for small business, developing technology solutions for the country. With youth unemployment estimated at 80%, this would work as a platform for the youth to grow their ideas and eventually create jobs.
In Kampala, small businesses – including startups – yearn for office space as they set up. More often than not, affordable office space can be in cramped shopping arcades along the traffic infested roads in the City. For a technology startup, the need is often to have internet access, working space, a desk, and boardroom – rare in shopping arcades.
“We teach students the basics of critical thinking, technology training, business skills and product development. If you pick someone who is raw to develop a solution, they need some level training and that is what the centre does,” says Drake Mirembe, the head, Centre for Innovations and Professional Skills Development (CiPSD) at the College of Computing and Information Sciences (CoCIS), Makerere University.
“We have mentorship programs for all those who are part of the innovation centre. All the startups also get support… which may include handsets that can be used to test applications,” Mirembe adds.
In 2012, five university students developed a mobile phone application that can track the growth of fetus in the womb, detects complications like abnormal heart beat and ectopic pregnancies. The five, started a company called Cipher256 which developed the application, WinSenga. The application in that same year won US$50,000 Microsoft grant. Mirembe says that this private involvement “played a key role” in supporting the team. WinSenga has since evolved and moved to a private incubation centre, the Mara Launch pad.
“As a startup, we need collaboration with other upcoming companies considering that we are all usually in the same situation,” says Joshua Okello, the spokesperson and web developer at Cypher256 Ltd.
The centre claims about 3,500 students have been trained so far. They also say about 100 small businesses have used the innovation centre. Mirembe estimates that between just five to ten applications could shatter what he calls the “glass ceiling.” Another team of four students – now a company called Code 8 – developed a mobile phone application that can diagnose malaria without the need for blood tests.
Close to 30 companies have been able to start up within and eventually leave the innovation centre. Mirembe says there are at least 30 applications on Microsoft’s application store – ready for download – that were developed with the support of the innovation centre.
The centre is not only limited to students of Makerere University, but has got outreach programs that go to other universities around Uganda. It has also made it easier for the students to participate in technology events around Uganda and the world.
Challenges, still enormous
Despite international support, funding is a definite issue for the innovation centre.
“The impact would have been bigger if we had a systemic flow of funding. For incubators, like many we work with, basic operational costs need to be covered. That means they can focus on developing their applications without worrying about other expenses,” Mirembe points out.
In the 2013/14 National Budget, the ICT Ministry was allocated 0.1% of the US$5bn budget. There is no money that is specifically allocated to the centre and none to research and development. More than three quarters of the budgeted US$4m went to fund the Information Technology Governance Services managed by the National Information Technology Authority – Uganda.
Mirembe says that if government contributed at least US$100,000 every year, then the centre would perform even better.
Funding challenges are however not limited to the centre, but are the same for other tech-hubs owned privately around Kampala. Richard Zulu the Founder and Director of Outbox Uganda – a tech hub – says that for technology to attract funding, then more successful technology based businesses have to be established.
“The more tech businesses created, the better it is for the economy due to inter-marketing opportunities within the tech businesses. More to that, it presents a benefit of more innovative businesses making use of the proliferation of the mobile and internet to solve Africa’s problems creating relevance on the internet and mobile.”
Internet penetration growth
The future, as Mirembe points out is not gloomy for Uganda’s innovators, including those at the Microsoft Innovation Center. This optimism is encouraged by the mobile phone and internet penetration, which continue to grow thanks to the cut-throat competition by telecom companies.
In the Indian Ocean, about 1,170 km from Kampala, Uganda’s capital, there are three fibre optic cables to which the country is hooked. The landing of these cables has led to internet connectivity to rise from 3.2 million in 2009 to 6 million in 2012: an internet-to-population penetration of about 16 percent. Furthermore, this connectivity has seen a drop in prices by about 30% over the last five years.
In November 2013, Google built a fiber-optic network in Kampala, saying that it was “strengthening a crucial piece of the internet supply chain.”