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In a post about Africa’s growing tech hub community, researcher Dan Evans (whose work we’ve covered previously), writes:

“Based on the maturity and business viability of many of the small tech firms that we have met with over our data collection visits, and the modification of many incubators’ business models, we completely understand the thought-process behind this “pivot” in strategy. For example hubs that we have previously visited like iceaddis and iLab in Liberia, andHiveColab in Uganda have all scaled back their original lofty aspirations. These hubs originally planned for a multi-tier membership model, charging rent for office space, and acquiring equity of the companies that were the most mature. Based on these assumptions, they thought they could be self-sustaining in a short period of time. All have scaled back their expectations and operate more as collaboration spaces for the local tech community and offer technical training and mentorship.”

In a tweetstorm response, I argue the following:

To expand on this, most hubs really overestimate the ability and desire of what the market will bear. While cheap/fast internet, nice furniture, recreational areas, and a stimulating environment of peers and mentors is a nice value prop, it’s not a business model that subsidizes the cost of running the actual hub itself. This is because the overhead of a hub (rent, staff, electricity bills, internet bills etc.) is high enough that to charge a rate that actually covers the bills is inversely proportionate to what startups and entrepreneurs can afford.  The better the space, the more attractive it becomes to people want to pay but can’t. The cheaper the space, the less attractive it becomes to people who can afford to pay but don’t want to.

So if the market can’t bear the price of hubs, who can? How can we fix the African tech hub model? People don’t realize this but HiveColab in Uganda (the hub we seeded and still advise) was operating as a tech hub for about a year and half prior to adopting the current branding.

At that time it was fully sustainable because it also doubled as Appfrica’s home base. It was our office and we shared it with anyone who wanted to come in and use the space. This was well before ever accepted any grants or donor funding. We were, thus, operating under a cross-subsidy model which means one thing pays for another. In our case, we offered technical consulting services to earn a profit and a portion of those profits were used to subsidize activities that were inherently unprofitable (giving away desks and free internet to entrepreneurs). Running a profitable company created the opportunity to carry-out unprofitable activities for social benefit without hurting our ability to survive.

If you look at the handful of hubs that are working, they are employing similar cross-subsidy models. MEST in Ghana survives on such a model given the success of software company Meltwater. The iHub in Kenya has iHub Research and its mLab for testing and other initiatives, that are producing revenue. However, given the size and scale of the iHub, from what I can tell, though it is producing revenue, I doubt its broken even from revenue when you exclude all grants and corporate sponsorships.

Both of their models work because they understand that donors are only a part of who pays, but not the only customer who pays. In tandem, donors/funders are being encouraged to give more to initiatives that are working towards sustainability versus not.

The biggest risk to the first wave of tech hubs is that they will implode under their own weight as soon as donors start to realize that the hub model will never be sustainable without some creative thinking about business models. This is already happening, in fact. Many donors like Indigo Trust and Hivos already have started to ask more of hubs in the area of business development. They and other donors don’t want to have account for 90% of any project’s revenue. Will they continue to be the ‘angels’ for the select hubs that have achieved notoriety? Possibly, but at some point that’s not sustainable and therefore, not attractive. One hard lesson many hubs learn is that running a non-profit or community oriented services does not equate to having no business savvy whatsoever.

In my opinion, any hub or accelerator struggling with financing has to think about a cross-subsidy model in order to survive. They also need to follow the iHub model of inviting corporate parters to the table as key stakeholders. But more importantly, they need to stop thinking about what they do as being justified because what they do is inherently ‘good’ or ‘needed’. Anything that is needed is invaluable to someone, and by definition will be supported by the stakeholders that can’t afford to lose the resource. Things that are ‘good for the community’ may well be that, but if they aren’t critical to the community, they are simply nice-to-haves. Unfortunately, most hubs haven’t yet found their ability to become need-to-have versus a nice-to-have.

The donors also have to get smarter about what they fund and why. The old NGO/Donor model allowed for the indiscriminate spending of money whether it was on solutions that worked or didn’t work. The new NGO/Donor model demands data, accountability, and sustainability. Increasingly the philanthropic community is moving from that old world and into the new. This puts any hub that primarily relies on grants in the precarious position of risk due to not having enough impact or being able to demonstrate enough impact to justify their survival. The only answer to that (other than having undeniable impact) is to have an undeniable sustainability model. This also makes the hub more resilient even if donors pull-out.

It also seems that donors should focus more on the infrastructure the hubs require to exist versus funding the hubs themselves. Organizations like AfriLabs that support the network of hubs or the recently announced ‘Hub fund’ democratize how resources are spent and build a better ecosystem. Outside of this, donors simply are attracted to the dominant players; which risks propping up ‘monopolies’ in what should be a more merit-based community. Organizations like the United Nations or the Africa Development Bank might do the same, a plan recently put forth by my colleague Bahiyah Robinson was one attempt to encourage their involvement in this network.

Finally, the other thing hubs have to resist is scaling too quickly. Having a large, well-decorated, and high-tech space is not a good thing if you haven’t yet figure out how to pay for it all. In fact, all of those assets then also become your biggest liabilities. Overhead is the inescapable common denominator of any organization, business, or non-profit. Scale should come when you truly understand your own business, it’s working, and you have to grow to meet demand. Scaling prematurely is the kiss of death.

Fundamentally, all of this stems from a gross misunderstanding of what a tech hub or accelerator is and why they work elsewhere. When you look at the hubs and accelerators in other markets, like YCombinator, 500Startups, The Hub Network and others they all have realized that the community they serve is not what keeps them alive as businesses.  In the case of YCombinator the accelerator can be thought as cheap R&D for an investment fund. It’s a loss-leader. The fund invests money up-front to get the best companies in its doors, they take equity, and then as the companies mature they reap the benefits of their early investments. The first few exits (when a company they’ve invested in sells) offset the cost of running the accelerator. From then on the accelerator essentially pays for itself and the cycle repeats.

Africa’s tech hubs misunderstand this because they assume that simply having access to companies is the critical component. It’s not. You need the best companies. Only the best and only ones that will exit. YCombinator essentially sells the best companies in the the most mature market in the world (The United States) to its audience of venture capitalists and corporate acquisition departments.  If you aren’t doing the same thing in your own market, you aren’t like them. This is particularly a problem in most African markets where there simply aren’t enough mergers and acquisitions going on to justify a reasonable expectation of such a model (which is dependent upon exits) in the first place.

Does that mean you can’t have companies that aren’t going to exit? No. But not having companies that exit means you’re in the business of selling something else. I’ve already pointed out that expecting the companies to pay enough to offset the costs of running a hub/accelerator is pointless. Expecting VCs or acquisitions to offset the cost is also pointless. So what works? Cross-subsidy. Figure out some other service the compliments the unique skills or offerings of your hub’s team and get profitable from that, use those resources to maintain your hub, use your newfound success and sustainability to invite other partners to the table to help you scale.

So if it’s that simple, why is this so difficult for hubs to implement? There are many reasons but ultimately boils down to the lack of experience in business development from people who fail to prioritize a working business model versus accolade and attention grabbing activities. This is usually a mistake of many first-time entrepreneurs (as hub managers often are) who mistake ‘attention’ for success. It’s a type of success, but it’s not necessarily the type that leads to sustainability.

As we move into the second life of Africa’s tech ecosystem, I look forward to seeing the new entities that emerge that embrace some of these core principles.

African Tech Hubs

Mara Launchpad is an exciting incubator and co-working space in Kampala, Uganda.

Following the lead of other innovation spaces across the continent, Mara Luanchpad’s mission is to create an open-ended model which allows for incubation, investment, capacity building and scale. Thus, Mara’s entrepreneurs get access to a place to work together as well as access to early stage seed funding and later stage venture capital.

Mara Launchpad Uganda

When you first visit the Launchpad, you’ll notice how densely packed the pace is with desks. These desks are paid for by entrepreneurs using Mara as their startup headquarters. Here they are given access to filing cabinets, meeting rooms, fast internet, a boardroom for meetings and other resources that might prove elusive for early-stage companies.

Mara is conveniently located directly across the street from Makerere University which makes it prime real-estate for student entrepreneurs who need a quiet, professional space to work along or in teams. The space is called the ‘Launchpad’ because of the perfect storm of resources available to participants seeking to ‘launch’ their projects or businesses in a friendly environment.

Appfrica visits Mara Launchpad

Appfrica Executive Director Bahiyah Yasmeen Robinson and Director of Advocacy Jon Gosier met with Mara Foundation Director Nigel Ball to discuss a number of opportunities for collaboration (between Appfrica and Mara Foundation), as well as their respective hubs (HiveColab and the Launchpad, respectively).

Despite what might exist as a perception of being a nascent tech community, Uganda’s Mara and Hive are only two of the many resources available to Uganda’s technology entrepreneurs and enthusiasts. By working together, the Ugandan incubator and investment community hopes to spawn a friendly competitive environment that allows all the various initiatives (and perhaps more importantly the entrepreneurs themselves) to thrive.

Apiyo Oweka of Mara Foundation

Apiyo Oweka (of Mara Foundation) and Daniel Stern (co-founder of Hive and Director of UConnect) also met with Appfrica to discuss the need the need to for more cohesion amongst business owners in Kampala’s growing market. Needless to say these conversations have spawned a number of new ideas, and will lead to many new great things for all involved!

Photos: Jon Gosier

This great graphic by the guys at Mhealth Africa illustrates where innovation hubs are popping up across the continent.

African Innovation Hubs