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Innovation hubs in universities powering Africa’s young entrepreneurial ecosystems

www.africanleadershipacademy.org
www.africanleadershipacademy.org

By Lionel Tarumbwa

According to the Accra-based African Center for Economic Transformation, a policy think tank, almost 50% of current university graduates in Africa do not get jobs. African governments are now taking a new approach to ensure that graduates leave universities empowered to become innovators and creators of jobs rather than as job seekers only.

Innovation hubs in African universities are becoming one of the great catalysts for innovation and entrepreneurship among very young entrepreneurs. Very young entrepreneurs’ ecosystems are, undoubtedly, being strengthened by the investments in research and an entrepreneurial approach to education coming from these centres.

Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe introduced its innovation hubs in 2019, and the Southern African country’s universities have already started seeing great innovations coming from the centres. The government invested in 6 innovation hubs in 5 state-owned tertiary institutions. The hubs were positioned to be centres where innovators could work on pruning their models and prototypes as they prepared them for the market.

These new innovation hubs are churning out innovative solutions addressing market challenges and companies creating employment opportunities for youth in the universities. With the introduction of innovation hubs, universities are ensuring they reclaim their role as a force of economic growth, dynamism and innovation.

Marvelous Nyongoro, a 2019 Anzisha Fellow and Ryan Katayi, an agritech entrepreneur, are examples of successful entrepreneurs who have benefited from the conditions – enablers of a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem – created by the innovation hubs.

The two young Zimbabwean entrepreneurs both started off their ventures whilst enrolled at two different state-owned institutions. Leveraging on the environment provided at the universities, they managed to prototype their ideas, participate in various incubation competitions and develop products that are disrupting their markets.

Marvelous’ business, the Housing Hub, has been tackling one of the biggest challenges that university students face. During his early years in a new city, away from home, he faced the challenge of having to scour the suburbs of a new city in search of accommodation. This inspired him to work with fellow students at his institution on The Housing Hub, a platform that is helping students secure off-campus accommodation without having to go through the rough searching exercise.

The Housing Hub was the first enterprise to be admitted at the Midlands State University’s innovation hub. The opportunity dramatically boosted the trajectory and growth of the business.

“It was just incredible, there were so many advantages that came with the opportunity. Before the innovation hub, we were trying to strike partnerships with our university and get landlords on board. It was had been a frustrating and challenging experience, but the moment we got into the innovation hub, it opened so many doors,” says Marvellous.

The innovation hub’s backing gave stakeholders confidence in the business’s process and operations. “Starting out at the innovation hub influenced the growth of our network. The current people we are working with got through to us because the MSU, the university, would go out and engage potential stakeholders on our behalf,” he said.

Farmhut

Fellow entrepreneur, Ryan Katayi is on a mission to ensure access to market and provision of equity-free loans to 5 million smallholder farmers in Africa by 2030. The startup he cofounded, Farmhut, has completed 1 700 transactions for 5 600 farmers since the end of March when Zimbabwe’s national lockdown started.

The firebrand entrepreneur also asserts the fact that going into an innovation hub directly impacted the confidence stakeholders and potential partners had in his business. Before he had been admitted into the innovation hub, he had to face questions about why an engineering student was involved in an agriculture and technology enterprise which had no relation to the chemical engineering degree he was studying.

“Being there gives you credibility. It gives accessibility to you and your team. It comes with advisory and mentorship, which are important when starting out and the space to think and reflect on your ideas,” he shared about his experience of being within an innovation hub.

Starting out at university also influenced his business’s access to talent. He compares it to the “dorm room” cliche that business like Facebook were built on. Most of the people who came on board when he started off were not on the payroll. “Most of them were driven by the idea of disrupting and taking on a challenge,” he said.

Ryan shares that the innovation hubs still have an old school orientation that focuses on producing products as opposed to services. His challenge is for policymakers to rethink and redefine innovation in a modern context as the Fourth Industrial Revolution is raging on. There is considerable room to innovate around services that directly impact societies rather than focusing on large scale investment into mechanical technology.

The ventures coming out of the innovation hubs are impacting the universities and communities they are operating in. There is also a need for traditional faculty to begin revaluate the role of universities in investing in young entrepreneurs and making greater investments in enterprises run by very young entrepreneurs.

Featured image: Attendants at the 2019 Anzisha Prize Tour in Kampala, Uganda (Photo Credit: Mfundo Mbanze)

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