From Rhapta City to Silicon Dar, The Diary of Dr. Mshinda, and Pres. Magufuli Speech, What Next For The Tanzania Innovation Ecosystem?
Rhapta (Ancient Greek: Ῥάπτα) was a marketplace said to be on the coast of Southeast Africa — Wikipedia. It is also the name of one of the earliest projects to develop a technology city in Dar es Salaam. This was the same time Kenya started to talk about Konza City and the smart cities movement was booming in Africa. I got a chance to talk with Dr. Mshinda former Director-General of The Commission for Science and Technology Tanzania, known for his amazing work at both the Commission and Ifakara Health Institute — fighting against Malaria. He is retired now — spending most of his time doing consulting works and mentoring youths. He gave us the story of the Rhapta Project and the efforts to build the Tanzanian innovation ecosystem during the early days of the ecosystem.
The Chimwaga Valley
The idea was to have “Chimwaga Valley” — this is what the former President, His Excellency, Dr. Jakaya Kikwete, envisioned. He wanted to make the University of Dodoma the core of the Dodoma Innovation Ecosystem the same way Stanford University was to the Silicon Valley. Already IBM and some other companies showed interest to be involved in the project. — Mshinda sharing his experience on what was the initial thinking of the University of Dodoma. The University of Dodoma was realized but the “Chimwaga Valley” wasn’t. It was unfortunate the vision was never realized. One key issue that emerged from this story was how do we bring our universities closer to the industry. The concept of technology transfer and research commercialization isn’t new in Africa now, but why are we not executing it? With the government pushing for Dodoma now and local content. Can we realize the Chimwaga Valley, and make Dodoma at the core of The Tanzania Innovation Ecosystem where digital and technological solutions can emerge to address societal problems and create employment opportunities?
Buni Hub, DTBI, and The Unicorns
What we envisioned was a place where young Tanzanians with innovative ideas can work together to come up with ICT related solutions — Dr. Mshinda. That was the idea behind Buni Hub and DTBI. We knew for this to work universities, the private sector, development partners, etc need to come together to nurture an ecosystem of players who shared a common interest — to support innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship in the country for socio-economic development. The results are what has seen today by people like; Godfrey Magila of MagilaTech, Edwin Bruno of Smartcodes, and what Jumanne is doing at Sahara Ventures. At some point in time, we were close to doing the first IPO from the ecosystem with MaxMalipo — Dr. Mshinda. The digital economy is real and it is a massive opportunity for the country. If a young man likes Andron Mendes — who built a company from scratch in Tanzania with proprietary technology that was involved in a transaction worth USD 25 million, it tells you a lot about the opportunity for digital-entrepreneurship in the country — Dr. Mshinda. We need to do more to create more Androns. We can achieve that through stronger ecosystems that ensure access to seed-stage and growth-stage financing, the right mentoring and technical support, and the right policies and regulations that encourage foreign investment into local businesses. You can view the Sahara Ventures interview with Andron Mendes here.
After failing with brick and motors cities, I heard New York is becoming an entrepreneurship hub, I asked myself how. New York already existed. I realized you don’t need to build a city from scratch you can capitalize on existing infrastructure — Dr. Mshinda. Most of the African countries struggled to adopt the concept of smart cities which involved the building of new cities from scratch because it was (is) very expensive. But what if these cities intentionally develop sub-cities (districts) within the city that fosters innovation and technology entrepreneurship? It is possible and this is what we are seeing with Silicon Dar. Even though there isn’t any formal commitment to promote the place as a technology district. It already feels that way to thousands of youths who work and do their business along the new Dar es Salaam central business corridor. That is how innovators and technology enthusiast works. They don’t wait for policies and regulations to be ready. They just innovate and move. the digital economy in Africa is expected to grow to over $300 billion by 2025 — McKinsey. Tanzania can not afford to be left behind. Silicon Dar can be a good point to start the agenda. There number of empty public buildings along the corridor. What if we reduce the cost and rent them to startups and small businesses? Yes, it’s possible and some governments are doing that. In Tanzania, SMEs contribute 60% to the GDP and 20% to employment.
What Next, Pres. Magufuli Speech
It is a great day for me, I was delighted to hear the President talking about the need to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the digital transformation that will be brought about by ICTs. — Dr. Mshinda. This a very good sign of our effort towards realizing the digital economy and 4IR. We need to translate this into action by equipping youths with relevant digital skills and ensuring digital literacy improvement in the country. The 4IR will create new employment opportunities and take away existing ones. We need to have strategies and policies that prepare us for what is coming. The goal of reaching 80 percent of internet penetration by 2025 is achievable. On top of that, we need to ensure technology helps to accelerate the growth of our economy, improve livelihood, good governance, and give us a competitive advantage as a nation. Without forgetting the role of startups, His Excellency, Pres. Magufuli in his speech he also touched on access to finance for early-stage businesses. This is extremely important. We need to have fund designed specifically for new types of businesses and not only the traditional SMEs. Funds that can help in the creation of more Andron Mendes who couldn’t access the funds from the LGAs because they are designed for groups.
I remain Optimistic
The next five years will be good for the startups (small businesses) and the private sector at large. The move to take TIC to the President’s Office is commendable. It will fasten the process of attracting regional and global capital. Investment in technology infrastructure will further the growth of the sector and widen the market for digital entrepreneurs. The commitment to revisit the funds will ensure more youth-led businesses have access to capital and hence addressing the funding gap. There is a very clear commitment to improving the business environment. We are looking forward to capitalizing on the opportunities that will emerge.