Social innovation in Africa is currently closely bound up with the digital revolution. To generate economic development that benefits as many people as possible, the digital sector must conserve all of its innovation potential – especially prevalent among FOSS communities1. Innovation spaces help young entrepreneurs to structure their approach while keeping all of their social transformation potential intact.

This article is an excerpt from Issue 29 : Financing start-ups to build tomorrow’s african economies

The transitions currently spearheading change – with the digital transition in the vanguard – are leading to a global paradigm shift. The world is entering a different era and Africa is no exception. The Continent has surprised everyone with the spread of mobile phone technology, the deployment of broadband and the emergence of a multitude of start-ups that help unlock all of the untapped creativity of its young people.

All over the world and especially in Africa, the transforming power of new technologies is revolutionising how we live, work and interact.

All over the world and especially in Africa, the transforming power of new technologies is revolutionising how we live, work and interact. The sea changes taking place at all levels (i.e., technological, economic and social) raise questions concerning the conditions that are most conducive to fostering the emergence of innovative start-ups in Africa today, particularly in the digital sector. What trajectory has been followed by these business leaders who frequently harness innovation to a specific need or context for the benefit of the greater good and the development of the Continent?

 

PRO-Revue N29-UK-1-billionYOUTH AND MOBILE PHONES: FERTILE TERRITORY

In terms of innovation, Africa has two key advantages: its young population and high mobile phone penetration: by 2050, it will count close on one billion, well-connected young people under 18 years old. This young population is helping to drive the transformations that are gradually changing the face of Africa, particularly through the creation of digital start-ups. For example, in Niger, one of the world’s poorest agrarian countries, farmers are being connected by an e-irrigation and e-assistance system set up by Abdou Mamane Kane’s Tech-Innov enterprise. This young entrepreneur, winner of several awards (Orange Social Business, the Hassan II water award, 3rd prize for young African startups), has designed an irrigation system that can be switched on remotely via a mobile phone.

So telephones are a constant in all of these transformations – nearly everyone uses one, even in the remotest areas – and telephone-internet convergence is increasingly important, especially since the advent of 3G and 4G broadband. Young African entrepreneurs have got the picture: digital is the new country from which they intend to conquer the world. Ulrich Sossou, a young entrepreneur from Benin is another example. He has launched an innovative and profitable real estate management solution that targets the US market – even though he’s never actually been to America!

 

LEARNING WITHIN DEVELOPER COMMUNITIES

Digital innovation – the lifeblood of solutions tailored to African problems – is the raison d’être of the communities that are developing these open source apps. These communities are therefore the structures in which future Pan-African entrepreneurs are learning their trade.

Telephone-internet convergence is increasingly important […]. Young African entrepreneurs have got the picture: digital is the new country from which they intend to conquer the world.

The communities are not hierarchical and function in a very informal manner. Consequently, recognition is conferred by merit and by one’s peers, and not by virtue of diplomas, social class or networks of influence – and this is a new thing for Africa. All members contribute to the greater good of the community and are only too willing to share their knowledge with others. The communities may have inspirational or charismatic leaders but they do not accept any hierarchy, especially one imposed from the outside.

 

INNOVATION UNDER THREAT?

At the same time, with the help of development institutions, especially within the scope of the World Bank-sponsored InfoDev programme,² the first digital incubator projects are beginning to come on stream. Enterprise support is starting to become more structured.

So community members are turning into project- focused entrepreneurs and they don’t share like they did before – they may even be in competition with other members. When incubation structures are designed in a too conventional way that disrupts digital community culture, unfortunately, horizontal, peer-based learning dynamics can disappear leading to a depletion of expertise. In Africa, one of the trickiest places in the world to do business where informal practices are very important, it is vital for young entrepreneurs to maintain collaborative links that keep them in touch with peer-based learning dynamics.

Community leaders and young entrepreneurs are snapped up very quickly by businesses in need of scare human capital. Multinationals are deploying programmes to acquire start-ups just to ensure their survival. This is often a hardnosed, unsentimental process and if it is not properly regulated, innovation could suffer in the long run. For entrepreneurs, the “Holy Grail” no longer consists in building up a business but in selling off their start-up to a big corporation within a couple of years. Under this approach, instead of taking on a big group, the start-up seeks to integrate one. It is as if Uber tried to sell its structure to the big French group Taxis G7 instead of trying to completely revolutionise the sector.

 

INNOVATION SPACES FOR INVENTING THE FUTURE

But there is an alternative approach to getting bought out and merged into a big corporation: innovation spaces seek to provide young entrepreneurs with a forum in which they can meet and exchange experiences with their peers while preserving links and a similar mindset to FOSS communities (particularly in terms of peerbased learning). In a nutshell, these spaces are created specifically to maintain and reinforce their innovation potential.

For entrepreneurs, the “Holy Grail” no longer consists in building up a business but in selling off their start-up to a big corporation within a couple of years.

Jokkolabs is an independent, not-for-profit organisation offering innovation facilities focused on social transformation. It has emerged out of hacker and FOSS communities and Jokkolabs’ philosophy is a naturally inclusive one. For its members, innovation is a bottom-up phenomenon and any local innovation – whether it comes from the North or South – can have a global impact. Jokkolabs’ members experiment with different approaches to try to come up with solutions to societal requirements in healthcare, agriculture, education, the new media and good governance. It is the first structure of this type in French-speaking Africa and has helped foster the emergence of numerous start-ups (Coin Afrique, Niokobok, Afri Malin, etc.).

Jokkolabs has also paved the way for a number of African “tech hubs” (i.e., these spaces that have been fostered by tech communities). In 2014, the World Bank estimated that there were 174 tech hubs (World Bank, 2014); in 2016, the GSM association identified 314 (GSMA, 2016) such spaces of various different types: coworking spaces, incubators, tech hubs, mobile labs, etc. All of these terms describe the same basic idea: spaces that were originally closely bound up with, and provided a forum for members of FOSS-type communities. These forums organise their own events: BarCamps (open, tech-focused and user-generated conferences), hackathons, bootcamps and other novel forms of exchange.

Some network members have launched social impact projects such as Ushahidi3 in Kenya or SIG Santé in Senegal, both of which are health mapping initiatives. These types of projects are blurring the distinction between enterprise and social activism. So digital innovation can drive development but for this to happen, we need an approach underpinned by the notion of “digital commons” (Wikipedia is a good example), i.e., harnessing a resource (knowledge) to a community and a specific set of rules. Such innovative initiatives pave the way for a new approach to development.

So digital innovation can drive development but for this to happen, we need an approach underpinned by the notion of “digital commons”.

THE ROLE OF POLICY MAKERS

Political decision-makers do not always fully appreciate the extent of the digital revolution. Indeed, only 40% of African countries have currently enacted legislation that protects digital data and there is a chronic shortage of statistics on the key aspects of the digital economy, all of which restricts the possibilities for devising appropriate public policies (CNUCED, 2017).

Only 40% of African countries have currently enacted legislation that protects digital data and there is a chronic shortage of statistics on the key aspects of the digital economy.

True, it is difficult to keep up with the sheer pace of this revolution, the paradigm shift and its systemic impact. We need to foster awareness among all stakeholders (public, private and those from civil society) of how the digital revolution actually works in practice along with all of its multiple facets, opportunities and risks (data protection, net neutrality, etc.). We also need to create a think tank that will reflect upon ways of controlling (and not just being subjected to) the digital revolution, and an action tank that will devise concrete solutions on the ground. Finally, we need platforms specialised in public– private partnerships and key resource persons within the communities themselves – powerful innovation drivers – focused on all of the major transitions currently in progress (i.e., energy, education, agriculture, etc.).

Footnotes:
1 Communities that promote free open source software (FOSS)
2 http://www.banquemondiale.org/fr/results/2013/04/05/supporting-new-technologies-and-entrepreneurs-infoDev-network-of-business-support-centers
3 https://ushahidi.workable.com/

REFERENCES
World Bank, Tech hubs across Africa: Which will be the legacy-makers?,April 2014. Available at: http://blogs.worldbank.org/ic4d/tech-hubs-acrossafrica-which-will-be-legacy-makers
GSMA, A few things we learned about tech hubs in Africa and Asia, August 2016. Available at: https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/programme/ecosystem-accelerator/thingslearned-tech-hubs-africa-asia/
CNUCED, Press release: “IER – New Digital Era Must Ensure Prosperity For All, United Nations Says” 2017. Available at: http://unctad.org/en/pages/PressRelease.aspx?OriginalVersionID=429