The tech business is booming in Africa. Using crowdsourcing technology, the Lusaka-based start-up BongoHive has produced an online map of Africa’s technology hot spots. As of April 13th, 2012, the number of innovation hubs across the Continent stands at 49 and counting. What’s behind the Hubs of Africa map?
“It is very difficult to find information about Africa’s technology incubation hubs in one place,” says Lukonga Lindunda, co-founder of BongoHive. “So we decided to do it ourselves.” They used the Ushahidi crowdsourcing platform – a quick and cost-efficient way to aggregate and map data from text, Twitter and email messages from thousands of people in far-flung places. Lukonga explains, “We had used Ushahidi previously to monitor the Zambian general election of November 2011 (see www.bantuwatch.org) so we were comfortable with the software.”
The tech hubs mapped by BongoHive come in all shapes and sizes: business incubators, hacker spaces, and other technology hubs – all areas where individuals are meeting, collaborating, and creating tools and technologies for use in many spheres of life. Lindunda told the eLearning Africa News Service that he hopes BongoHive’s Hubs in Africa map will encourage interaction and knowledge exchange between hubs. The 49 hubs that have been plotted on the map to date show that from Senegal to South Africa and many places in between, the new trend is for tech enthusiasts to pool their resources and imaginations by creating hubs of innovation.
BongoHive itself is a case in point: It was set up in May 2011 as a space for technology entrepreneurs to network, swap ideas and stage training events. The idea to map other tech hubs originated with Tony Roberts, the founder and former CEO of Computer Aid International. Roberts told the eLearning Africa News Service, “My own role has been modest. I was interested in learning about how creating a place for tech enthusiasts and entrepreneurs to meet in Lusaka might stimulate innovation. We then wondered how many other technology innovation initiatives existed in Africa, and the idea to crowdsource the answer was hatched.”
While starting such a venture would usually be financially prohibitive, Lindunda says, “The start-up costs were minimal. The Indigo Trust, a UK charity, assisted us with the costs of the high-speed Internet connection, and further funding for the purchase of computers and test phones was provided by Dr Brenda Davies, Principal of the Brenda Davies International School of Healing and Spiritual Development.” BongoHive also received a cash injection from the Flemish Association for Development Co-Operation and Technical Assistance (VVOB) thus enabling them to launch the mapping project on Twitter on February 13th, 2012.
The response was immediate. While BongoHive’s visibility is growing alongside that of the hubs they have mapped, there are many more incubation hubs not yet included on the Hubs in Africa map. Lindunda explains that those that have made it onto the map are active on social media and are also adept at issuing press releases and building their brands. The preferred media for getting crowdsourced information from A to B are text messages and Twitter, but in his eagerness to flesh out the Hubs in Africa map, Lindunda admits, “We have also begun emailing hubs so they can add their details to the map.”
The campaign to spread the word is paying off, for BongoHive has received much feedback, especially from West Africa. One of these is the Kumasi-based mFriday, a mobile web lab that is serving as an incubation hub for Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology students. One of mFriday’s success stories is the Apps4Africa award-winning Farmerline, an app developed by Alloysius Attah and Emmanuel Owusu Addai. Although excited at the proliferation of tech hubs across Africa, Bobby Okine, co-founder of mFriday, nevertheless warns that there may be a downside. “There are too few ICT4D courses offered at universities, and this has led to the emergence of tech hubs on the Continent which have very little to do with academia. In some cases, there is insufficient or superficial research into the problems they intend to solve with the many apps they are developing.”
Lindunda agrees that Africa’s technology hubs need to broaden their horizons. “Techies cannot exist independently. They need to interact with different sectors and players in the industry in order to exploit gaps in the market and to be able to develop useful innovations,” he explains.
But might it be a passing fad? With the exception of Pretoria’s Innovation Hub which dates back to 2002 and the Botswana Innovation Hub which opened in 2006, most of the hubs appearing on the Hubs in Africa map are barely two years old, and their long-term mettle remains untested. However, Lindunda explains that the current mood is one of progress: “The technology incubation hub has an important role to play. There are a lot of ideas floating around, but people do not know how to turn them into real projects, and even when they do, they do not have access to the necessary resources or support systems to make their ideas happen.”
The Hubs in Africa map is filling out, and everyday a clearer picture is emerging of just how big that tech business boom is.
Take a look at the Hubs in Africa map here: https://africahubs.crowdmap.com
Business incubator—Programmes supporting start-ups with advice on entrepreneurship. They are typically run by not-for-profit organisations, academic institutions or public bodies.
Hacker space—Not merely the realm of hackers, hacker spaces are places where individuals with a common interest can meet for peer learning, lectures or just plain relaxation. Computer geeks and open source aficionados are particularly fond of this type of offline venue.
Crowdsourcing—Let’s say you want to put together the world’s largest ever encyclopaedia, but you have neither the money nor the manpower to make your vision a reality. Do you defer your dream? No. You offer the unpaid job to anyone out there who has something to say on any subject, and if you’re Jimmy Wales, you soon go down in history as the founder of Wikipedia. That’s crowdsourcing. It’s outsourcing a job to countless masses who will submit data free of charge, and the concept is now used over and again in our wired world.
Ushahidi—When Kenya succumbed to post-election violence in January 2008, up to 45 000 people took to warning others of the violent hot spots to avoid by posting reports online. That website has since morphed into Ushahidi, which means ‘testimony’ in Swahili. The company relies on user-generated input – from texts and emails to Twitter – to create interactive maps and colourful depictions of large data sets. You can download your free copy of the software here.
By Brenda Zulu with additional reporting by Prue Goredema