African tech hubs are starting to specialize and build a budding culture of innovation

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Bosun Tijani, co-founder, Co-creation Hub speaking at the Design Lab, Kigali launch

While innovation has been at the heart of many of the progressive discussions around African development over the last decade, the focus has tended to be centered on the benefits and impact of digital technology as internet penetration rises across the continent.

That type of digital innovation has often relied on the fast-growing crop of startups in major tech hubs in Nairobi, Cape Town, and Lagos led by young entrepreneurs with ideas and young businesses that hope to impact and change local industry sectors and even entire countries.

One element of the discussion, that isn’t often highlighted is the importance of design in helping these innovative businesses differentiate themselves and develop original products and services that have an impact way beyond their own shores. In the early days of local tech hubs, many startups recreated African versions of existing  US businesses or business models. Co-Creation Hub (CcHub), the Lagos-based tech hub which has been an early home for some of Nigeria’s best-known startups, has decided to focus on building a design culture from scratch but not at home. Earlier this month it opened a design hub and innovation center in Kigali, Rwanda.

The new center aligns with CcHub’s original vision to take advantage of technology’s potential to meet Africa’s challenges in education, health, and governance “while unlocking social and economic value,” says Bosun Tijani, co-founder of CcHub.

“Africa cannot remain as consumers, we need to grow into producers of solutions,” he says. “With the design lab, we are looking to deepen our work, to allow us support the smart application of technology especially for prosperity across multiple countries.”

Over the past two years, over 130 new tech hubs have opened on the continent bringing the total to well over 400 but there’s still not enough to meet the needs of the world’s youngest and fastest-growing populations, particularly in the sub-Saharan Africa region. Though they’re called “tech hubs” many are community centers whose key role is to provide steady electricity and internet access in workspaces and sometimes help with access grants to entrepreneurs looking to find their way in the global tech industry.

They may sound less sophisticated than their moniker implies, but their role has been valuable in building a vibrant new sector. But in recent years there’s been a growing realization by tech veterans that there’s a need for increased specialization at a few of these hubs to be centers of excellence in training and building a knowledge base in valuable strands of the industry from artificial intelligence and hardware to robotics and design. There are few specialist hubs, like Gearbox in Nairobi which has focused on hardware or the “maker” sub-genre.

CcHub’s design lab in Kigali includes a research and development unit made up of a multidisciplinary team of researchers, product engineers, and designers. Unlike its hub in Lagos, where startups are incubated at various stages of growth, the lab is a space for collaboration where solutions for social impact are created.

“A design hub is a mini R&D center. This is a huge need for the African continent where there is a lack of R&D investment,” says Rebecca Enonchong, who chairs Afrilabs, a pan-African network of around 90 hubs across 30 countries. She believes the success of the design lab in Kigali will lead to more specialist hubs springing up. “I really hope that we will see a multiplication of these innovation labs across the continent.”

“A key advantage African startups have when competing with global players is their keen awareness of the specific design elements that work well in the unique commercial ecosystems and cultural environments,” says Aaron Fu, managing director of MEST Africa, an incubator program for technology entrepreneurs. “Design labs help crystallize that awareness into actionable insights that have the potential to drive competitive advantage.”

Investors also want to see more specialization across the African startup landscape not just in disciplines and knowledge but also in certain hubs focusing on different maturity levels of startups. “We want to help angels decide which level of startup to invest in by developing a taxonomy,” says Tomi Davies, a co-founder of Lagos Angel Network, a collective of local angel investors. “I’m expecting you’re going to see an increasing number of partnerships between hubs and angel groups this year.”

With the launch of the lab in Rwanda, CcHub is looking to use human-centered design approaches to generate ideas, test and prototype solutions that will create value for people and their communities in the social impact sectors its startups focus on including healthcare, education, and governance.

For now, the new lab is looking to solve problems in public health, especially in digital epidemiology by collaborating with scientists, researchers, and developers to help accelerate the adoption of local solutions for better detection and surveillance of diseases.

CcHub’s Tijani acknowledges there is a deficit in tech specialization in the continent and the hub is now pioneering a distributed innovation system. “It lets us draw knowledge and capability from partners all over the world in our bid to further support innovation beyond start-ups,” he says. “Our lab will build on an extensive network of partners to solve and execute practical projects that will solve African social and business challenges at scale.”

As this adoption presents an opportunity to track and defeat disease outbreaks, the possibilities are endless. “We can’t wait to see more specialist programs and spaces rise on the continent,” Fu concludes.

QUARTZ AFRICA