Tanzania Innovation Ecosystem and The Untold Stories of The Buningers.
Buni Hub, originally known as “The Innovation Space”, was one of the earliest innovation hubs in Tanzania. It was part of the bilateral project between the Tanzanian and Finnish governments to build an innovation ecosystem. This article tries to capture some interesting stories from the hub.
It’s February 2013, waiting to be interviewed for a job post titled Innovation Space Manager Trainee; waiting for my turn on the corridor, I saw a guy wearing a blue T-shirt, a black trouser and a pair of sneakers about to enter the interview room. Up to today, I’m still wondering what was running on his head to wear like that on an interview — that was the legendary Brian Paul, you can also call him Brompo. A guy who grew up in Tabora with an English accent of a European. Post the interview. I realised two people were selected for the post that was supposed to be for one person. It was Brian Paul and me. We become the Co-Innovation Space Manager Trainees, which was the beginning of the story of the Buningers.
A Buninger is a loyal member of Buni Innovation Hub. Buni Hub had five types of memberships; managers, interns, makers, freelancers, and founders.
The First Generation Buningers
Connecting the dots from the back, to be honest, I still don’t know how I got that job. I was coming from a failed startup, a struggling blog, and struggling to build connections. It was that time in a life whereby you are desperate to succeed. And then I met this guy who didn’t care about anything; he just enjoyed doing stuff, Brompo. I still believe Brian Paul, Kristiina Lahde, Dr Hassan Mshinda and Jukka Siltanen is the best thing ever happened in my professional career. Suppose you don’t know those names. These are the brainchild of the TANZICT Innovation Space later on Buni Innovation Hub — Don’t kill the messenger, “The Mother Hub”, the hub of all hubs.
During the early days of Buni Hub, it was like fixing the plane on air. We (Me and Brian) had no clue what we were doing. We had to learn everything in the process. Thanks to our supervisors, they had the Silicon Valley mentality, “Move Fast Break Things”. I remember Buni Hub being within a public building. We broke every rule of the public institution. We never wrote letters; we operated till midnight. We overused the Internet and invited different guests without following proper procedures of public office. It wasn’t intentional and not our fault. They hired us to innovate and disrupt. Our manifesto was very simple, “Don’t Ask Permission, Ask Forgiveness”. That’s how we built Buni Hub. I remember once we hosted an Ambassador without the COSTECH management approval. We thought it was okay to catch up with a senior diplomat in a public building.
Our registration numbers grew to 3700 active members; we organized more than 100 events per year, hosted hundreds of different speakers, and established partnerships across the world. With minimal resources. When we went to Dr Mshinda to pitch the concept of Mini Fabrication Laboratory without hesitation, he gave us 15 Million TZS to pilot it. We had to sacrifice our office to set up the makerspace. There was no space for the maker space at Buni Hub. Fast-forward a few months later, Buni built the first electronic waste 3D printer in Africa in partnership with William Hoyle and Matthew Rogge from Tech4Trade. Building on the success World Bank come up with the RefabDar project. Our dream was to have a full-fledged fabrication laboratory at COSTECH. The dream never matured, but it was the birth of the next generation of makers community. It was the birth of STICLAB, a community Makerspace in Kitunda that went ahead and started manufacturing the electronic waste 3D printers. Rest In Peace, Stanley Mwalembe, the visionary DIT lecturer behind the STIC Lab concept. Today the STICLAB has evolved to become Bongo Tech Lab.
At Buni Hub, entrepreneurship was a religion. We lived and worshipped successful entrepreneurs. While I was building my third startup Du Brands, a startup that sells branding as a packaged, Brian worked on Fast and Fresh, a fruits and vegetable delivery Application. We practised what we were pitching to the young entrepreneurs. We lived their stress and hustles, and it was one big happy family. Oh damn, I miss the good old days when the focus was only about building successful innovators and entrepreneurs to solve the most complex problem facing our communities. Our focus was to help entrepreneurs when they were at the complete early stage of their entrepreneurial journey. We wanted to be a pipeline of accelerators and incubators looking for the right entrepreneurs to support. Hence the pipeline of support concept I published in 2017.
Second Generation Buningers
A guy popped up at Buni Hub; he is coming from Vodacom. He was pitching to the Vodacom management about “Bulk Scratch Vouchers”, a guy who dared to imagine people can actually buy mobile refill vouchers worth 400,000 TZS. When I was still shocked by this, he went to his bag and showed me innovative socks like shoes he has made for medical practitioners to wear during surgical operations in local hospitals. The gentleman with the grand entrance was Musa Kamata. Musa volunteered to work without pay at Buni for months to learn everything he knows about startups and innovation. Because of his energy and zeal without even informing COSTECH. We agreed with Brian we need this guy to handle Operations and Security at the hub. He became our Ops and Security Lead — fast forward now, Musa is the second majority shareholder at Sahara Ventures, my cofounder and sideman.
With Brian and Musa, we went ahead and started designing the four core Buni Hub programs; The Internship Program, The Mentorship (Pre-Incubation) Program, The Community Outreach and The Makerspace. We built the program through trial and error. With the Internship Program, we wanted to copy the program Demola, which we saw in Finland. With the mentorship program, we wanted to replicate the Startup Sauna Program at Alto University. The community outreach was motivated by our hunger to reach more students in the local universities. We organized many in-campus sessions to encourage students to become startup founders and join Buni programs.
The Internship Program worked with more than 400 students from across all the universitiesTanzania. We did more than 60 different projects, with some of the projects turning to become startups, some open-sourced, and some submitted for academic prerequisite. Some of the most interesting serial startup founders, such as Michael Kimollo, Amani Gachocha, and Musa Kalokola, were forged in this program. A good number of our current enterprise-level developers emerged from that program. We had youngsters contributing their codes to Facebook, Barnabas Makonda, the legendary Graphic Designer, Saddam Mjaka, the former Sahara Accelerator Manager, Emmanuel Senzighe, and others who work in Telcos and Banks technical team emerged from this program. I was about to shed tears when I met one of them at Halotel, and he reminded me of our contribution to his career. I completely forgot the guy. A founder recently reminded me of Pacota Solutions about Buni’s role on his entrepreneurial path. Next time someone asks what have the hubs done to support entrepreneurial culture in Tanzania. Just tell them you don’t know what you are talking about.
I still remember the hustles in our mentorship (pre-incubation) program, begging people to come and mentor our startups at the hub. Most experts didn’t want to give back, and some mocking our efforts. Against all odds, many people emerged from the programs. Some of them today contributes half a billion of Tanzania shillings of taxes every year. Operating silently without making a lot of noises. Startups like AgriInfo, founded by my sister Rose Funja, IPF Softwares founded by good friend Grayson Julius and others are signs of the strong foundation built at Buni Hub. Grayson came to Buni with an idea of an app that will sell African fashion dresses online, Africa’s Fashion. I still remember the meeting I set with Sheria Ngowi, I’m not sure if it ever matured, but their push to succeed. I knew they would reach far. Today he has created jobs for more than 20 young Tanzanians. From the days of MoView, Great Food — to Tunzaa, another interesting Buninger is Ngw’inula Kingamkono. To entrepreneurs, failure is not an option. We always find a way to get back up. He is also one of those earliest Buningers.
I’m proud of Maryam Mgonja, Ifakara Innovation Hub Director, who came to Buni as a young journalist. By the time she was arriving, we were desperately looking for an event host. Something me and Brian were not so good at. Maryam pushed her way to a successful career in the innovation ecosystem as a host and a manager. We co-founded Sahara Sparks with five other young Tanzanians; Paul Mandele, Jacquline Dismas, Raheem Mngwaya, Albany James (Founder of Food Sasa) and Musa Kamata. This is a story for another day. Brian refused to take the shares, is the most unselfish person I have ever met. He wanted to focus on building Studio19. Maryam went ahead and became strategic personnel for Seedstars in East Africa. I can say for a fact she played an important role in building Seedstars presence in Tanzania. She was such a gem to Sahara Ventures especially, Sahara Sparks.
Third Generation Buningers
Alongside Maryam, there was Jacqueline Dismas, an engineer. One of the smartest ladies I know. Jacque and the STICLAB team were the brains behind the electronic waste 3D printer. Equipped with knowledge in IoT and passionate about electronics, Brian and I agreed she should be our Mini Fablab Manager. All the people we onboarded, for some reason they saw Buni as a place to learn and build their careers while helping others. Maybe that is why some people wanted these guys to continue work for free at some point in time. They gave everything to the community.
A guy from Kenya popped up at one of our events and asked me to join our team. Looking at my face saying I don’t care if you pay me or not. I want to work here. That is how Basil Malaki joined our team. A workaholic with writing and communication skills you have never seen before. He was the guy who was writing our blog posts and reports. People always wondered how we are paying a foreigner. The truth was we never paid him. He was there to learn. He went ahead to become one of the most successful consultants I know. His first consulting Gig he got at Buni during the World Banks Negawatt Challenge. He now consults the likes of World Bank and Hivos. Currently working with GIZ in Kenya. Basil played a crucial role when we were moving to build systems and structures for Sahara Ventures. He was the first project manager of our first big client. I have so much respect and love for this guy.
Rahim Mngwaya and Paul Mandele were our youngest siblings in the family. Equipped with technical skills and passion for innovation, they stayed behind after the internship program to volunteer for Buni Hub. Rahim built the first electronic waste drone that was showcased to President Kikwete. He got a scholarship to develop his drone engineering career further and started his own startup Colifly. I have met talented people in this world, but the guy is on another level. He is one of the best creatives I know when he decides to be also an occasional engineer. Without a college degree, by then, both guys were doing wonders. Both Rahim and Paul run their own venture and do consulting works in the ecosystem. And I’m so proud of what they have become.
The University Outreach program established in-campus innovation communities at Dar es Salaam, St. Joseph, DIT, and NIT. One of the names that come into my head when remembering this program is Ahadi Katera, the Founder of Guavay, one of Tanzania's leading organic fertilizers companies. Ahadi was the General Secretary of the University of Dar es Salaam Industrial Engineering Student Community (UDIEMSO). He was the guy who brings together other students whenever I go to speak. He is an entrepreneur by blood.
Important to Note
The story of Buningers is so fascinating. A group of Tanzanian youths without experience, influence, or connections built something without legal existence that eventually worked with global brands such as World Bank, Hivos, IIED, MAVC, Tech4Trade, UNDP, etc. It tells you a lot about the potential of Tanzanian youths if you unleashed it.
There are so many Buningers that I wish to mention here. Some are successful photographers like Imani Nsamila, some researchers like Joyce Msigwa, some musicians like my brothers Mike Tee and Gosby, and many more. Buni was never about the building and fancy furniture. It was never about ego. It was about building the community and serving people. It was about people. It was about the community, the passion for serving, the zeal to learn and the determination to succeed. We shared our bad and good days. We celebrated our wins and losses together. The place taught me everything I know about building strong startup teams.
The Next Frontier
COSTECH published the Tracer Study and The Impact Report of Buni Hub and DTBI. A few months ago, the Honorable Minister of Education, Science and Technology, Prof Joyce Ndalichako and COSTECH Director-General, Dr Amos Nungu. The report has more stories and facts than what I have covered here. I want these names to be written in the records as the young people who worked hard to build the Tanzanian innovation ecosystem. Some of them will go unknown or unnoticed, but their work created most of what we see today.
Amazing young people still run buni Hub. Shout out to Patience, Edwin, Promise and others. The legacy will continue, and more young people will be impacted year after year. I’m so proud of what we build down the years. Every BUNINGER out there stand proud and tall. You have done noble work to Tanzanian youths. It was the community and not individuals who did what happened, which made Buni great.
Humble beginnings build a strong foundation.