25 Aug 2014
Even if you are just a casual follower of technology in developing countries, you will probably by now have come across blog posts and news articles touting Africa’s tech entrepreneurship boom. Indeed, the first fast-growing mobile app startups have come up, the first Pan-African startup innovation platforms and conventions have been assembled, and thousands of aspiring technologists and would-be entrepreneurs across the continent are now looking to solve problems and build companies with technology. Along with the buzz, a consensus has emerged that local digital production—such as African startups targeting mobile applications at businesses or consumers in their home country or region—could and should be an important contribution to economic and social development.
At the same time, right underneath the feel-good patina of mainstream and donor media that is happy to report African success stories, there are also critical voices and emerging debates. Many of the arguments revolve around the risks and benefits of supporting local tech entrepreneurs, and how to use the scarce available resources. In this context, the rise of a new type of organization, the tech innovation hub, has caught people’s attention. However, it has proven extremely tricky to identify the desired and actual impact of these systemic innovation intermediaries (Smits & Kuhlmann, 2004), and so the few available assessments range all the way from questioning to excitement to disillusionment.
In short, there is clearly a lot of confusion around how to support tech entrepreneurship and early stage innovation across Africa, and no definitive models have emerged. Stakeholders of local innovation systems are still grappling with a long list of questions concerning the “if”, “who”, “how”, “when”, and “where” of tech entrepreneurship support. In particular, it is unclear whether hubs are effective as innovation brokers (Klerkx & Leeuwis, 2009).
In my dissertation research that goes beyond my work at infoDev, I want to address some of these questions. Based on my initial reading of the available literature and evidence, I believe that “innovation networks” (that is, the relations and interactions between entrepreneurs and other actor groups in innovation systems) are a key part to the puzzle, and so I will apply qualitative and quantitative social network analysis as an analytical method.
From September to December 2014, I will kick off the data collection and spend one month each in Kigali, Harare, and Accra. With this study setup, I hope to capture tech innovation happening (or not happening) in contexts that differ in terms of factors such as geography, economic development, entrepreneurship mentality and “culture”, tech innovation legacy, “vibrancy” and the number of already present actors in the innovation system, and many other influences.
I’m hoping that the result will be a better understanding of the dynamics underlying African tech innovation systems. Ultimately, my research is meant to inform and shape the policy and decision-making of people engaging in questions around tech entrepreneurship and local digital production in cities all over the continent.
I invite you to comment and contact me if you would like to be involved in this research, or simply be kept posted about my findings. Do reach out especially if you are a stakeholder of the tech innovation systems of Kigali, Harare, and Accra. Academics interested in this line of research should also take a look at the AAG call that Mark Graham, Isis Hjorth, and I recently put out.
Hekkert, M. P., Suurs, R. A. A., Negro, S. O., Kuhlmann, S., & Smits, R. E. H. M. (2007). Functions of innovation systems: A new approach for analysing technological change. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 74(4), 413–432.
Klerkx, L., & Leeuwis, C. (2009). Establishment and embedding of innovation brokers at different innovation system levels: Insights from the Dutch agricultural sector. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 76(6), 849–860.
Smits, R., & Kuhlmann, S. (2004). The rise of systemic instruments in innovation policy. International Journal of Foresight and Innovation Policy, 1(1-2), 4–32.
 Here is a sample of articles in major media outlets: New York Times, Huffington Post, The Guardian, NPR, The Economist, Tech Crunch, and Wired UK.
 A nerve was struck by a Wired UK article that resulted in a chain of at times combative blog posts by Tom Jackson, Sam Gichuru, Mbwana Alliy, Josiah Mugambi, Erik Hersman, and Jon Stever (as collected by Erik and Jon in their blog posts). A more recent debate was started by Dan Evans and followed by answers from TMS Ruge and Jon Gosier. Also the comments section of Tim Kelly’s widely noted blog post brings up some interesting issues.
 At the risk of missing others, a few of the better known addresses on tech innovation hubs are: Afrilabs, VC4Africa’s tag on Hubs, Bongohive’s Hubs Map, the iHub blog, and Afrihive.
 That said, I will complement the network analyses with broader, qualitative innovation system assessments based on Hekkert et al.’s (2007) “functions” perspective.