What is behind the recent growth of Africa’s tech hubs and coworking spaces?
Few hours after arriving in Dar es Salaam from Cairo, I can’t seem to stop appreciating the beauty of the Egyptian pyramids. The myths and scientific theories behind the ancient largest man-made made structures fail to explain how they were built and who built them. They are still standing and they don’t look like they are going to collapse anytime soon.
Possibly another wonder coming from Africa is unexplained new tech hubs and co-working spaces and hubs being formed everyday. Approximately there are 300+ tech hubs and co-working spaces in Africa those are which have been formally recorded or researched by organizations such as World Bank and GSMA. If you asked me, I’m sure the number is almost two times of that since most of the time we look for hubs in Africa’s major cities but the new trend shows Africa’s semi-urban communities also hosts many community spaces. In Tanzania alone, Dar es Salaam host half of the spaces with the remaining spaces scattered in different parts of the country. From the most recent AfriLabs gathering, almost a third of the spaces attended the conference were not coming from the financial or political capitals of Africa.
Like the pyramids of Egypt, the myth and theories around the recent massive emergency of tech hubs and coworking spaces across the continent is kind unclear or at least no scientific evidence answering why. My hypothesis will be due to three things; increased adoption of technology (the mobile economy), Africa’s youthful population and the current unemployment situation in the continent. Africa has the youngest global population with 200 million people aged between 15 to 24. By the year 2050 Africa’s share of the world youths population will move from being one-fifth to one-third. The good news is a number of people are joining the working class, the bad news is unemployment problem is worsening especially in continent’s urban areas.
Even though there were some spaces before 2010 operating in the continent, the largest wave of new spaces started in 2011–2012. In 12–24 months, 3 tech spaces were launched in Dar, Buni Innovation Hub, Kinu Co-creation Hub and Mara Foundation Space. This is the exact same time sub-Saharan Africa’s downward employment trajectory started. In this same year, a lot of other coworking spaces and tech hubs were established in different parts of the continent mostly, in Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria. Building upon my hypothesis, countries with the largest unemployment challenges but with high rate of technology adoption has more spaces than others which makes me to believe, the rate of growth of number of hubs and coworking spaces in any community in Africa is directly proportional to two variables; unemployment and the rate of technological adoption, this might not be scientific.
The growth of African cities can be a reason, with African cities being among the fastest growing cities in the world you expect people to be more innovative as they push for flexibility, affordability, and convenience to live in these cities. Concepts such as shared office spaces shared housing and transport systems automatically emerges due to the needs of the people. What is not clear is why most coworking spaces and shared offices are technology-oriented? Can the model be replicated in other sectors to encourage more diverse innovations?
Another hypothesis is around regulation and measures, unlike schools and Universities which you have to go through a lot of bureaucratic processes to set up, coworking spaces are easy and flexible to set up since the BBCs (Born Before Computers) don’t understand, or are clueless on how they operate hence they can’t regulate them. This provides opportunities for youths in Africa to set up spaces with few steps; get a space, build a community, design programs, and activities and look for revenue to sustain it. In Africa, regulations are what limits innovation. On the negative side of things, lack of understanding of the value of spaces and hubs is the reason very few spaces receive technical and funding support from the government even though these spaces play a crucial role in driving economic growth in the continent.
The tech hubs and coworking spaces revolution are a like a neglected silent army of continent’s young energetic think tanks guarding the future of the continents innovation, technology and entrepreneurship to create sustainable economic development. Most working with minimum resources possible designing game-changing solutions for continent’s most pressing problems. From innovations such as BRCK and USHAHIDI from iHub, Kenya, e-Waste drones and 3D printer from Buni Hub, Tanzania to a platform such as Andela operating in Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda. These spaces are redefining the Africa’s role in the global innovation and technology entrepreneurship ecosystem.
Every Africa’s generation fought at least one war affecting the continent at large, at some stage slavery and colonialism were the biggest issues the continent had to face but now it seems unemployment is the largest enemy of all time.
There have been a number of technical publications by InfoDev and the likes about this interesting African story but there is a lot of HOWs than WHYs. Like the mystical people who built the ancient pyramids of Egypt the driving forces that push the growth of these spaces even in the most complicated places (cities) in the continent is still not very clear.
Jumanne Mtambalike has been working in Africa’s innovation and technology entrepreneurship for six years now. He was part of the first team that run Buni Innovation Hub. He is currently running Sahara Sparks, Sahara Consulting and Sahara Accelerator.