TECH HUBS

Tanzania 2014 | ECONOMY | FOCUS: INNOVATION & ENTREPRENEURSHIP

There's a technology revolution happening across Africa with the potential to dramatically accelerate the continent's development, both economically and socially.

From Kigali to Kampala, Dar es Salaam to Dakar, Cairo to Cape Town, and across the African continent, new collaborative workspaces and technology hubs are popping up as beacons for the high-tech hopes and dreams of the continent.

Spurred on by the proliferation of mobile phones, the increasing access to affordable internet connection, and the emergence of an entrepreneurial drive, countries like Tanzania and its neighbors are entering a new era of African innovation. For example, in the last two years alone, three tech and business incubation hubs have opened up in Dar es Salaam.

There is the KINU Innovation Hub, which bills itself as a social enterprise with the mission of concentrating, growing, and accelerating the Tanzanian tech and social landscape. It was established in 2011 by a group of young technology enthusiasts eager to make a positive impact; its institutional partners currently include Google and Indigo Trust, a UK-based, grant-making foundation.

There's a Tanzanian government led initiative, through the Tanzania Commission for Science & Technology (COSTECH), which has funded a tech hub called Dar Teknohama Business Incubator (DTBi). DTBi runs a four-year business incubation program that seeks to house technology start-ups and provide the value-added services they may need for their ventures to succeed. Most recently, Mara Launchpad opened its doors in Tanzania in March 2013. It is a business incubation center looking to house and nurture not only technology entrepreneurs, but those of other stripes too. The Launchpad is the brainchild of entrepreneur Ashish J. Thakkar, who is the founder of Mara Group.

There are now more than 50 tech hubs, labs, incubators, and business accelerators across Africa, with a new one opening up seemingly every few weeks. These hubs portray a very different Africa to the one often seen in the media, and attract creative, young tech graduates who come in search of opportunity.

As these spaces become the nerve centers for the tech community, they also become critical international touch-points for those seeking to engage in technology and business in Africa. For example, in May 2013, Microsoft announced a partnership with COSTECH, which houses the DTBi incubator, and with UhuruOne, a Tanzanian internet service provider, to bring in cutting-edge broadband access, Windows 8 devices, and technology skills to local universities. Microsoft did this as part of its strategy to actively engage in Tanzania's development and to improve its own global competitiveness. Other global technology companies, such as Google and Samsung, also recognize the importance of getting involved on the ground with such hubs and have made it part of their strategic priorities. The new tech and business hubs that have popped up are also becoming new points of exchange for long-term expatriates and short-term visitors looking to identify trends, find local talent, and catch the African wave of innovation.

ENTREPRENEURSHIP

With the seeds of innovation and entrepreneurship just planted, the fruits are slowly beginning to ripen as these hubs give rise to some young and exciting companies. In Tanzania, one such company is Safari Yetu, a participant in the DTBi incubation program. Its founder, Arnold Minde, has developed a web-based bus reservation and booking system that can automate the bus-ticketing process in Tanzania, resulting in potentially significant cost and operational efficiency advantages for bus company owners and greater convenience for passengers. The latter would now be able to book and purchase inter-city tickets online or straight from their mobile phones. The company recently won the GIST Startup Boot Camp competition and will be presenting to investors in Dubai in the coming months. Another up and coming firm is Problem Solved Ltd, founded by Eric Mutta, and currently based at Mara Launchpad. The company produced Mini Shop, a simple-to-use bookkeeping and inventory control application specially designed for small businesses in Tanzania. The product won a $15,000 grant prize from the US State Department in 2012 for the impact it could have on bringing informal businesses in Tanzania into the formal sector. This year it will be awarded a $330,000 grant from the Financial Sector Deepening Trust (FSDT) to roll out the application.

Africa is rising, and Tanzania is rising along with it. The zeal and entrepreneurship that are being nurtured in these hubs will, it is hoped, permeate throughout the country.