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Urban Links Africa launches

Afrilabs: Key learnings

Nadia Echchihab, Global Commercial Business Team Lead for Connected Places Catapult, discusses Afrilabs and how it impacts the Urban Links Africa project.

 

When Urban Links Africa launched, I wanted to get a flavour of the African innovation ecosystem. How is it structured? What are their ambitions and success stories?

One of the most useful sources of information I found online was the Afrilabs network, so I was very curious to experience it at their Annual Gathering held in October 2019 at the African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

 

What is Afrilabs and the importance of federating tech hubs in Africa?

Afrilabs is the pan-African network of tech hubs. Their objective is to support hubs to raise successful entrepreneurs that will create growth, jobs and develop innovative solutions to African problems.

They are doing a great job at federating more than 174 hubs across 45 African States, building capacity and catalysing private investment on the continent. I was impressed at the energy, quality of the programme and inspirational speakers during this two day annual gathering.

Here are my key take aways from the event:

 

1. Supporting the African innovation ecosystem is a crowded space

I learned about several capacity building, acceleration and training programmes for innovation hubs and entrepreneurs.

It’s worth noting the event was sponsored by Google, Microsoft and international development agencies. For this reason, it’s critical we don’t duplicate what already exists and instead focus on identifying gaps where we can bring added value to achieve impact.

I was particularly interested in Afrilabs’ own capacity building programme, based on years of research on hub needs, capacity gaps and best practice. Afrilabs has designed and is currently implementing a series of webinars and physical events throughout Africa aimed at upskilling tech hubs in emerging sectors.

 

‘It’s critical we don’t duplicate what already exists and instead focus on identifying gaps where we can bring added value to achieve impact.’

 

2. Most tech hubs in Africa are tech agnostic

Since the project began, I’ve had the opportunity to speak to several different tech and innovation hubs in Kenya and South Africa, and none of them were addressing urban challenges, nor collaborating with their cities.

CPC has identified a gap between tech hubs and their cities, and a need to upskill African tech hubs on urban innovation.

ULA’s activities can be used as a good case study to show the potential of open innovation between public and private sector at city scale.

‘ULA’s activities can be used as a good case study to show the potential of open innovation between public and private sector at city scale.’

 

3. There’s an African fatigue regarding international projects, which are seen as unrealistic

A lot of African stakeholders are contacted by international organisations with funded projects to support African innovation and tech ecosystem, but a lot of them come with misconceptions about Africa, resulting in their projects being unfit for purpose.

Equally, there’s a gap between the criteria imposed by international donors to African stakeholders to fund their projects, and the reality of the market and African challenges. It is, therefore, crucial we consult local stakeholders about African challenges, and have them onboard at challenge definition to get buy-in.

‘It is crucial we consult local stakeholders about African challenges, and have them onboard at challenge definition to get buy-in.’