The person who put together CcHub’s buy-out of iHub in Kenya is saying that Africa’s tech hubs and innovation systems are not delivering to global standards. Russell Southwood spoke to Bosun Tijani about why and what ccHub is doing to fix it.
There have been several attempts to create a network of tech hubs in key markets. Danish investor Kresten Buch (who created 88mph) put together one that covered Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria before retreating. Karim Sy’s JokkoLabs covers several Francophone countries and has a foothold in France. Django Bathily’s Sira Labs has set off down the same road. The dream of a continent-wide network of tech hubs is not new.
The challenge for tech hubs is that they are clearly a central part of Africa’s innovation system but it is unclear what roles they can play and how the can pay for themselves. Having paying users is only part of the business model puzzle and several tech hubs have already gone under before they figured out how to put the pieces together.
iHub is not without its own troubled history. It started as one of the tech hub trailblazers but seemed to get left behind as its founders took on new projects. Although it remained a strong brand, other co-working spaces and tech hubs in Nairobi seemed to roar past it over the last five years.
Ex-IBM Research Kenya CEO Kamal Bhattacharya was bought in to revive it and it was then sold to impact investor Miguel Granier, founder of Impacted Development: it has a slew of African start-up investments. He was described as “controversial” (in Kenya) because of his role in resolving a conflict in a Kenyan cloud start-up. He has held on to iHub for two years before selling on to CcHub.
CcHub’s co-founder and CEO Bosun Tijani told me that it was a real financial transaction but was reluctant to reveal how much it had paid:” Money was involved in the transaction but it’s not something we want to talk about”.
The purpose of the purchase was to meet some crucial strategic needs in the ecosystem:”One of the critical things missing on the continent is applying science and technology developed on the continent. Mostly we’re using IP that is developed elsewhere”.
“The strong innovation systems on the continent are the tech hubs. But often they just exist to help the youth or for job creation purposes. The quality is not what it needs to be. Part of this is for us the journey (we have taken) over the last 10 years. I used to work in a start-up and as a consultant in the UK so I know where we should really be”.
One of Tijani’s key concerns is that the tech hubs can support multi-county roll-outs:”We need to be able to support large start-ups. The creation of an African Single Market is a huge opportunity. There is the issue of operating in multiple countries and being able to support start-ups across multiple countries (to do this). The innovation ecosystem in Nairobi has most of the key global organizations there. We want to partner with these organizations to scale businesses”.
As part of this commitment he cites the recent opening of CcHub Design Lab in Rwanda, which wants to be a place “where its multidisciplinary team of product designers and engineers will collaborate with scientists and stakeholders globally, to explore the application of emerging technologies that will solve Africa’s systemic problems in Public Health, Education, Governance and the Private Sector”. As he told me:”It’s a small country but you can start to see the opportunity in Africa as a single market”.
So does this acquisition mean that ccHub is looking at opportunities in say somewhere obvious like South Africa?:”It’s logical but we’re not sitting round plotting it. We may look at it but we’re not actually searching. We want to make iHub an entity that can support innovation across Africa”.
So what’s the global standard he’s looking to create?:”The first obvious thing to say is that the innovation system is weak. Universities don’t play a role in it We don’t do basic research. There is not a lot of African innovation coming to market. Aside from coding we don’t have any centres of excellence in knowledge. For the last ten years (the world) ridden the wave of US innovation but we (in Africa) don’t have the engine to do that.”
He has himself become an Adjunct researcher on applied digital epidemiology – focusing on the application of mobile and social data in improving public health and managing disease outbreaks in Nigeria at the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research.
Tackling this knowledge gap is more important than money:”Funding is not the biggest problem. We need to build networks and relationships across the world. We work in education with universities globally, for example with among others the University of Innsbruck, who work with both academic and non-academic partners. We need to be building our knowledge and science capabilities.”
In 2017 CcHub secured 1.5 million euros as part of GO-GA (Go-Lab Goes Africa), a European Commission funded collaborative project under the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Funding Scheme. It has also conducted PitchDrive tours for African start-ups of 5 cities in Europe and another five across Asia with partners like Google:” We’ve started scaling our work to be international. The team has been built that way”.
As if all that were not enough, Tijani is one of the key backers of a new campaign in Nigeria. Its technology leaders have launched #StopRobbingUs, a campaign to put an end to the common practice where Nigerian police stop young people with laptops and unlawfully arrest, attack or, in extreme circumstances, kidnap them, forcing them to withdraw funds from their bank accounts in order to regain their freedom. Working alongside Enough is Enough Nigeria [EiE], a network of individuals and organisations that promote good governance and public accountability in Nigeria, the #StopRobbingUs movement is now considering a Class Action Lawsuit on police brutality.
Led by ‘Bosun Tijani of CcHUB, Jason Njoku of IROKO, Iyin “E” Aboyeji of Future.Africa and Oluyomi Ojo of Printivo, amongst others, the campaign is calling for the Federal Government of Nigeria to intervene in the continued practice of illegally arresting and extorting young people in Nigeria who work in the technology sector. A fundraiser has been launched by Flutterwave to raise money for a legal intervention and public awareness programme, which has already seen donations flooding in from across the globe.
The #StopRobbingUs campaign comes after Toni Astro, a Lagos-based software engineer, posted on Twitter a harrowing account of his encounter with Special Anti-Robbery Squad [SARS] officers in Ketu, Lagos. During his ordeal on Saturday 28th September, Astro was allegedly publicly intimidated, arrested, beaten and extorted, in order to secure his freedom. News of SARS officers (Nigeria Police and all tactical units) targeting software engineers is a frequent occurrence in Lagos and this is the latest in a string of attacks. Today’s news builds on the larger #EndSARS movement that has rocked Nigeria over the last year, which has used social media to appeal for an end to the frequent robberies of Nigerians, by security operatives who are supposed to protect them.
But why has the campaign take off now?:”Extortion is normal by the police when you get into their hands. It’s been the experience of every young person. As a nation we’re grappling with a bad reputation. If you have an iPhone or a laptop, the police will question how you got it. On this basis, they will extort you. It becomes a reason to take you in and lots of people at CcHub have experienced it. It happens every day”.
“People need to wake up. We can use tech to track the officers who are doing it. We’ve never tried anything like this where we are arguing it’s about jobs and business rather than human rights. The latter are important but the police are fighting against people spending money to create jobs”.