Hubs have become ubiquitous in Africa and globally. It is not uncommon to find any type of business dub itself a hub; conversely, some businesses are de facto hubs but do not call themselves that. Before we go too far, let’s review the etymology of the word “hub”. The first known use of hub was in 1649, with the technical definition being ‘the centre of a circular object’ for example, a wheel or propeller with spokes attached to the hub of the wheel. Fast-forward to 2020 and the word “hub”, with the advent of the start-up culture and entrepreneurship, means a center of activities of a socio-economic ecosystem.
The fact is, in Africa, we need hubs. Innovation hubs, tech hubs and business hubs have become centers of activity for aspiring entrepreneurs and under this very broad blanket we have co-working spaces, incubators and accelerators. Without these platforms, communities and the activities they support are left to fend for themselves.
Co-working space v.s Incubator vs. Accelerator
Hubs are the blanket under which the subsets exist. Many of the entities considered as or under hubs may overlap. The main elements considered in this category are explored below:
- Co-working Spaces
A co-working space is simply that, a space in which people convene to work either individually or collaboratively. These spaces are typically defined by shared infrastructure (both soft and hard) such as internet and office furniture. Co-working spaces have mushroomed across the world in recent years, with the larger international ones for example, We Work in the United States which focuses on space but not necessarily on incubation and acceleration of start-ups.
Africa has not been left behind on this wave, as networks of coworking spaces such as Impact Hub, Seedspace and Afrilabs have been founded locally and connected to others across the continent. Independent, non-network affiliated co-working spaces based on sector and industry have also increased as the need to save money and harness the benefits of shared infrastructure.
An incubator is a platform that assists in the growth and development of new initiatives and businesses via shared services and resources including commercial space, mentorship and business administration to name a few. In the African context, this is key. From colonial times, the bulk of African jobs were dependent on huge western conglomerates, and therefore the market was not primed for internal start-ups. For example, Zimbabwe was defined by large multinational corporations and the education system groomed students to work within these structures. Start-up culture is nascent and still evolving. In order to ensure the success and growth of ideas from locals, incubators are a key element in growing the local start-up ecosystem. The times and the needs have changed.
Accelerators are similar to incubators in regard to prepping for growth, but they specifically focus on scaling an initiative be it financially, geographically and in terms of the business offering. They take an existing business to the next level so they can grow in capacity, services and in market share. As Africa strives to be a major player in the international corporate world, we need to go from ideas to products that serve us locally, then regionally and then the ultimate prize, globally. This growth can only happen with hubs buttressing the ecosystem with the necessary resources. Famous start-ups in Africa such as Andela which itself acts as an incubator for techies and developers, went through acceleration programming and are now dominating across the African continent. Famous acceleration organisations include Y combinator, Google for Startups and Facebook Start.
An ecosystem suggests symbiosis. Impact is not isolated to a specific hub or entity, instead, there is collective impact. Not one hub, incubator or accelerator can cater to all the needs of a start-up. The start-up ecosystem is interdependent and when these entities come together in the form of various support platforms and programming for entrepreneurs, the system advances along with the economy which allows for higher employment rates and quality of life.
What kind of support do you think is required for African hubs to continue to support and develop their ecosystems? Share your thoughts in the comments section below: