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Tech labs move beyond corporations in sub-Saharan Africa

o Rebecca Wanjiku
18.02.2010 kl 16:22 |

Availability of affordable bandwidth, growing synergies between IT industry and academia, government policy reforms and emerging opportunities in the IT sector have led to growth of incubation labs outside the orbit of the corporate giants in Africa.

 

Availability of affordable bandwidth, growing synergies between IT industry and academia, government policy reforms and emerging opportunities in the IT sector have led to growth of incubation labs outside the orbit of the corporate giants in Africa.

Big companies like Nokia and Google have done extensive work with developers in the region but the growth of smaller labs financed by smaller companies and individuals in Cameroon, Senegal, Kenya, Ivory Coast and Uganda have underlined the opportunities presented by availability of bandwidth.

Nokia, manufacturer of the most common handset in the region, has a very extensive research and development network involving universities, startups and individual developers in the region. Apart from Nokia Research initiatives, Nokia has a collaborative effort with InfoDev, a World Bank program, and the Finland Ministry of Foreign Affairs aimed at growing small businesses.

"Nokia has a long history of providing platforms, devices and solutions for emerging markets; Nokia has seen how good ideas, no matter how big or small, can have a large impact on a lot of people in need," said Jussi Jussi Impio, the team leader for Nokia Research Center, Africa

"Reduced bandwidth costs were a significant factor in our decision to go forward with a shared collaboration space; our bandwidth options just two years ago were limited to cost-prohibitive VSAT providers and Camtel, the national telco; we are currently using a wireless connection with a theoretical limit of 3Mb/s, which serves our needs well," said Bill Zimmerman, co-founder of Limbelabs in Cameroon.

The labs mainly offer working spaces, with bandwidth and facilities that allow techies to conduct their business as if they were in an office setting. They provide kitchen and IT services at a small fee.

"For a young techie with a business idea, the costs associated with establishing an office are enough to sink their hopes before they get started; we offer a furnished office space with broadband, conference facilities, a lounge, housekeeping, security -- in short, everything one would expect from a professional tech office, with flexible membership plans in place of lease terms," added Zimmerman.

The challenges facing young graduates are the same all over sub-Saharan Africa: rising unemployment rates, tough business startup requirements and lack of synergy between the universities and the IT sector.

However, governments have also started addressing these challenges by providing some online services and simplifying the licencing and other processes required for startups.

"The procedure for starting a new company in Senegal has been simplified significantly; it takes less time and there is less paperwork involved," said Joeri Poesen, co-founder of Bantalabs in Senegal.

While big companies can afford to finance developer activities, it remains a challenge for the smaller labs. The financing is partly membership and partly donations.

For instance; Nokia launched its $1 million dollar campaign that encourages mobile developers to collaborate and present solutions capable of solving local problems while Google has run projects with universities and developers in the region.

"Bantalabs is a fully bootstrapped company -- no outside investment was involved; our community oriented activities and low-cost services are to be funded by revenue from commercial projects for mostly European and North American clients," said Poesen.

Nokia realizes that there are a lot of entrepreneurs with good ideas out there and perhaps in some of these cases, funding can be what limits the ideas from moving forward, added Nokia's Impio.

The labs enjoy some of the tax incentives offered to telecommunications company, which are mainly meant to encourage investments in the sector.

"Investing is encouraged by incentives -- though they are geared towards the larger investments, some do apply to us to some extent, like no import charges on electronic/digital equipment, lower overall tax rate, and lower personnel taxes, which makes it attractive and feasible to quickly build up and train staff with a limited budget and uncertain revenue prospects during the startup phase," added Poesen.

The labs have been heavily influenced by BarCamps, which are informal settings where techies present their ideas and network with colleagues. The BarCamp events have contributed to the growth and popularity of the labs and such opportunities have been cited as critical to ICT sector growth.

The tech scene in Ivory Coast changed a great deal with the first BarCamp Abidjan last year and will undoubtedly be further strengthened by this years event in the first weekend of March; these events have let to the creation of Akendewa, said Miquel Hudin, founder of Maneno.org, a multilingual blogging platform.

Apart from supporting each other and sharing ideas, the labs are serious about developing interesting applications capable of competing globally.

"Our first incubated company is on track to release an innovative mobile service for the local market and plans to deploy it to other African countries, with several value-added services to follow on a regular basis," Zimmerman said. "We're working very closely with a 2009 NetSquared N2Y4 finalist who is piloting an SMS-based information service for smallholder farmers; another startup that is co-working with us has developed a hosted software platform which will be marketed to secondary schools."

Given the similarities of challenges and opportunities to market beyond the borders, the labs have an ultimate goal of co-developing projects, sharing code, and hardware designs among other collaborations.

"There's an opportunity to connect with the InfoDev network of incubators and co-working spaces, which are well-established and widespread on the continent; we're also looking to develop a partnership with the World Economic Forum Global Leaders of Tomorrow (GLT) program, with the goal of sharing the expertise of GLTs to increase the quality and execution of existing digital ventures, build awareness of digital opportunities in Africa, foster social entrepreneurship and create a venture fund for digital entrepreneurs in Africa," concluded Zimmerman.

Keywords: Software  Hardware Systems  
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