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The potential of the Silicon Savannah


Published on: 27-Jan-2015

Researchers from the World Bank, in collaboration with the Botswana Innovation Hub, have recently endeavoured to map the tech hubs in Africa. They found that more than half of the countries on the continent have at least one hub, with the total being around 90. South Africa has the most (17), but countries like Ghana (9), Kenya (8), Nigeria (7), Tanzania (6) and Senegal (6) are not far behind. The nature of these tech hubs varies widely. Examples given by the World Bank researchers include the Smart Xchange in South Africa, a tech hub that wants to be a growing space for ICT business, and the Hive CoLab in Uganda, which simply provides working spaces for entrepreneurs to exchange ideas.


An interesting development is that African governments seem to have taken notice. Technological innovation is one of the drivers of economic development and holds potential for job creation for young African talent. Governments therefore increasingly look to invest directly in tech hubs. Since home-grown technology holds a lot of potential for young African talent has recently been demonstrated by a feature on the website of Ventures Africa, on 10 inventors under the age of 30.

The list shows people ranging from 16 to 28 from all over the continent (Kenya, Morocco, South Africa, Congo, Malawi, among others) that have invented products that are not only catered to the needs of Africa, but can be relevant in other parts of the world as well. Arthur Zang from Cameroon, for instance, has invented a handheld medical computer tablet (Cardiopad), that can assist in diagnosing people with heart disease. Evans Wadongo from Kenya has invented a solar lantern (MwangaBora), for 50% consisting of recycled material. These inventions did not necessarily originate in one of the tech hubs that cover Africa. Instead they, just like the tech hubs, indicate the renewed emphasis on the innovative capacity inherent in the African economies. The tech hubs are a way of mobilising this capacity, bringing talent together and amplifying their innovative capabilities.

The home country of Mr. Wadongo, Kenya, is one of the African frontrunners in knowledge and innovation. Often it serves as an example for other countries, blazing the trail for others to follow. It is not surprising then that one of the most successful utilisations of the potential of mobile phones, the flagship for technological innovation in Africa, originated in Kenya. M-PESA allows anyone with a cell phone to make payments and transfer cash electronically.

Its convenience, safety and speed has enabled M-PESA to be rolled out in other countries (including Tanzania, Afghanistan and India) and has even provided a further impulse for startups that build on this foundation. The proliferation of start-ups in Kenya can be attributed to the conducive environment. According to the World Bank research, the Kenyan *iHub serves as a model for other tech hubs on the continent and it has made such an impression on the Kenyan government, that it will now establish tech hubs in all its counties. Though mobile technology fuels the majority of start-ups, other initiatives have benefited from *iHub as well. JuaKali is an online database for skilled manual labourers. They can make their own online profile and receive recommendations by registered users, so that they become more visible for potential employers. This conducive environment for innovation creates opportunities for Dutch businesses as well. Royal Philips has recently established the Philips Africa Innovation Hub in Nairobi. This Hub will focus on application-focused scientific and user studies to address key challenges, like improving access to lighting and affordable healthcare, as well as developing innovations to meet the aspirational needs of the rising middle class in Africa. The establishment of the Philips African Innovation Hub is a testament to the progress Africa has made in the field of innovation and the possibilities this creates for local and international businesses. 
 

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