Zimbabwe’s Hubs of Innovation

Poetry | By Brian Gondo, IT Consultant | 12 January 2014
PHOTO: © Baynham Goredema

The last few months in Zimbabwe has seen the launch of two Tech Hubs, namely Hypercube and Muzinda Umuzi. To be pedantic Muzinda Umuzi is not a tech hub per se but maybe more of an entrepreneurship hub as it supports any business idea that shows potential rather than those purely in the tech space. Hubs are the latest tech fashion statement. Every African country has one. For example, Kenya has iHub (and others mind you), CCHub in Nigeria, Hivecolab in Uganda and BongoHive in Zambia. So other than the catchy sounding names should we be excited by what these hubs promise to offer?

There is something intriguing about the concept of a tech hub. If one drills down the analogy of a spoke and hub concept the conclusion is that the hub is the centre of a system, in this case the centre of the tech or innovation ecosystem. Just as hubs are important, for example in the air travel business, being the points that connect flights to disparate destinations one can safely say that Tech Hubs act as a central conduit of some kind.

But a conduit of what? Ultimately it’s talent. In technology talent is the electricity that powers the whole system. Tech Hubs act as a space that allow talented people, usually young, or at least the young at heart, to come together and develop technology based products and services. So these people can be programmers, designers, scientists or anyone with a product or business idea that is the next big thing.

The intrigue for me about the nature of Tech Hubs is their raison d'etre. There’s a built it irony about their very existence. You build a hub to foster innovation and entrepreneurship yet by nature innovation and entrepreneurship tend to be spontaneously occurring processes that respond to the immediate needs to the environment. That is not to say entrepreneurship or innovation cannot be taught or encouraged. But just as you can teach someone to play football the innate talent is what determines whether one can reach the levels of Ronaldo or Messi.

Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian economist famously spoke about the driving force at the heart of the capitalist system as “creative destruction”. That is the ability of the capitalist system to promote new ideas, products and businesses, rewarding these via the profit incentive and in turn these successes supplant old models. An economic version of Darwin’s evolution theory. If Schumpeter could have envisaged an industry that fully epitomises this it would be technology where some products can have a lifespan of months and even days. The progress of technology is highly delineated and unstructured so how can a hub with its limited footprint even remotely hope to capture the best ideas or more importantly those that will succeed in the marketplace.

Silicon Valley probably owes its existence to 2 remarkable men: Fred Turman and William Shockley. Turman an engineer and dean at Stanford encouraged his students, two of whom were Bill Hewlett and David Packard, to commercialise their research.

William Shockley on the other hand was a Nobel prize winning physicist and the founder of Fairchild Semi-Conductor. Shockley contribution to technology is not only as the inventor of the transistor the device that give Silicon Valley it’s name but his company Fairchild spawned over 20 high tech companies most notably Intel, whose founders Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore where Fairchild Alumni.

Shockley was as brilliant as he was notoriously difficult to work with. A trait which led him to relocate to the Valley, then not the bustling metropolis of today but a place filled with fruit orchards. The valley was created by people who actually hated the bureaucracy in the big tech companies that at the time were clustered on the US east coast. Shockley was a refugee from AT&T's Bell Labs in New York. Other engineers ran away from IBM’s claustrophobic environment on the east running away to California’s sunny and freer environment.

In the wake of the technical talent that was coalescing on the West Coast financiers like Georges Doriot came into this primordial soup and setup the foundation of venture capital industry whose central idea of rewarding entrepreneurs with stock options led to the mega windfalls that characterised valley exits in subsequent years.

The valley brought some key ingredients together. An entrepreneurial work environment where the best ideas win, a good technical education system (Stanford, the University of California system etc.) and venture capital. African hubs as currently constituted provide none of these pillars. So maybe the term Hub is rather too ambitious. The flipside is that in an environment where finance and networking opportunities are scarce, hubs can indeed like the lens of a magnifying glass focus these resources. Bringing in people/parties that have these resources. Despite the existence of accelerators such as Y-Combinator and 1M/1M the valley’s biggest hits come from outside these structures.

The question for the Zimbabwean hubs is whether they can even in a limited fashion emulate the success of the valley. The best place to search for clues to answer this question is to look at the tech hubs that have been setup in Africa. The sheer number of hubs in Africa, there are over a 100 of them, suggests that something in this model must be working.

Nigeria’s Co-Creation Hub has several projects ranging from e-commerce to mobile gaming with a focus on both for-profit and non-profit. And the opportunity is not just in apps and software. Kenya’s iHub has produced a hardware product in the form of the BRCK mobile internet device that guarantees Internet access when grid electricity goes down. Sold under the tagline the “Backup Generator of the Internet” the BRCK features wired or wireless Ethernet connections, a battery life of eight hours, and the ability to connect up to 20 devices.

Probably the most successful hub or program it the one run by MEST in Ghana (Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology) that has given rise to products such as Saya Mobile and Dropify that have gained some traction in the market place. Saya Mobile is a messaging app similar to MXit/Whatsapp. A Techcrunch post indicates that Saya Mobile had 400,000 users. a figure that could have gone up since the articles publication in September 2012. A word of caution though. Africa is yet to produce a hugely successful app like Viber (a product developed in Belurus). So it’s early days yet.

A cursory look around the world at all the various attempts to create Silicon Valley clones does not fill one with confidence about the prospects of such an endeavour. Country’s such as Russia and Japan have given it a go with much deeper pockets and more resources and have failed. Even other regions in the US have had little success in duplicating the valley’s success. The reason for failure is never the lack to resources if anything it is the opposite. Too much money being thrown in. Necessity after all is the mother of invention. And in the words Silicon Valley VC Vinod Khosla, entrepreneurial creativity starts when you remove a zero. The implication is that the restraints found in the African environment are themselves sufficient to produce successful entrepreneurs and products without any external intervention of any kind.

Another criticism of hubs is that for entities that are promoting entrepreneurship, they are not very entrepreneurial themselves. Hypercube is funded by donors (namely Hivos, Indigo Trust and the US Embassy) and Muzinda Umuzi by Econet, a telecommunications company. Are the hubs able to practice what they preach? AfriLabs, which is a network of African Hubs is actively looking at ways to make hubs sustainable. Which is rather weird. It seems sustainability was more of an afterthought than something important in the beginning. But having said that, is there any harm in hubs becoming obsolete once their purpose has been fulfilled. Should they be immune to the flux of creative destruction?

In my view, the most important ingredient in the development of a tech industry is not coding skills or capital, but it is enterprise. That flame within an individual that says the status quo is not good enough and I will over throw it. Skills can be learnt and the best entrepreneurs use the lack of money as strength rather than a curse. As Silicon Valley’s rebels have shown the desire for creative freedom is what led them to opt out of suffocating structured environments at Bell Labs or IBM and embark on the risky road of enterprise. That same desire for creative freedom continues today as startups come of former HP, Intel, Oracle, Google and Facebook employees, in themselves companies founded by techies travelling the road less travelled.

As noble as the hub initiatives are, chances are the greatest tech developments are going to happen outside of them. The hub’s may provide a useful networking platform or serve as a lightning rod to galvanise industry stakeholders but in themselves they are unlikely to produce many successful companies or products.