Tech-oriented business incubators and accelerator programmes are opening their doors across Africa. Research by the World Bank has estimated that over 90 incubators exist on the continent, and for the past few years countries such as Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria have been the focal point of Africa’s inaugural incubator programmes. However, increasingly, accelerators are arriving in places as diverse as Rwanda and Cameroon, encouraging Africa’s less-heard-of entrepreneurs to step into the limelight – Gabriella Mulligan.
One such incubator is Rwanda’s kLab, based in Kigali, whose mission is to promote entrepreneurs developing ICT-enabled solutions by providing a network through which kLab members can flourish.
According to general manager Claudette Irere, the advent of incubators has ushered in a generation of vibrant entrepreneurs solving real on-the-ground challenges faced in Rwanda.
“Before the era of incubators, the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Rwanda was almost unseen and unheard of especially in the IT sector. But now, new startups are rising everyday and not just ghost startups but businesses geared towards solving challenges faced in our day to day lives. Incubators are exposing these new entrepreneurs to the opportunities and challenging environments at the same time equipping them with the right skills,” Irere tells Appsafrica.com.
kLab believes the role of an incubator is to take in people with ideas, and help them exit with viable, investable businesses.
“kLab wants to be the ground that will allow seeds to grow- a catalyzer, a fertilizer and a transformer. kLab’s role is to simply provide a platform for ideas to grow into businesses,” Irere said.
With this in mind, Irere says kLab takes a different approach to each entrepreneur, providing varying levels of input and assistance according to the needs and business phase reached by each startup.
For example, she says people who need to do market research will be helped to reach out to their customers and clients; while mentors are matched with tenants on request and depending on what is challenging the individual business.
kLab prides itself of being a community of entrepreneurs, and believes it is people that are the most important resource for building the entrepreneurial sector in Rwanda – and the biggest asset of an incubator.
“The kind of community that we have is young and dynamic, speaking almost the same language of entrepreneurship. Our major focus is interactivity among members and so we created an inclusive environment where members are not strangers but friends and potential business partners and co-founders.”
According to Irere, supporting entrepreneurs is of paramount important as it is entrepreneurs that will “make” Rwanda’s economy. She says entrepreneurship is already on the rise in the small East African country.
“Entrepreneurs are what will make Rwanda a private sector-led economy. Entrepreneurs are the ones expected to change the status quo with disruptive business models. Rwanda is highly populated, landlocked and no substantial resources. The resources are always going to be the people,” she said.
“Entrepreneurship is on the rise now more than ever. Looking at the kind of ideas that people bring to kLab and a few that make it to the top, I am positive that we will keep on getting more and more.”
Across the continent in Cameroon, tech entrepreneurship is also being given a boost by incubator ActivSpaces; which hopes to encourage the creation of African-made technology startups and tech innovation. In particular, ActivSpaces focuses on supporting African youth and women to become technology entrepreneurs.
According to Ryan Yoder, executive director of ActivSpaces, incubators should act as a bridge between the different stages of a startup’s “life”, helping businesses scale and progress to the next level.
“The ideal progression of a startup will go through a few general stages: bootstrapping, angel money, venture capital, exit. ActivSpaces is acting as a bridge between bootstrapping startups and angel investors,” Yoder said.
Yoder says Cameroon is currently a challenging environment for entrepreneurs, as angel investors view the market as risky; and without an investment culture, startups are faced with inordinate difficulties in getting their businesses off the ground.
“We see our role as reducing the distance between what entrepreneurs are able to bootstrap and what angels are ready to invest in,” he said.
ActivSpaces takes two separate approaches to incubation. On the one hand, its “startup membership” programme offers basic services – such as office space and business coaching – to startups. Startups on this programme commit to making progress on their projects and work with the ActivSpaces team on their business model and product.
The second programme, “Activation Bootcamp”, is a six month program that is aimed at startups that have a product and business model. Under this programme, startups receive funding, legal advice, marketing assistance, financial advice, and mentorship.
According to Yoder, Cameroon is a “country of entrepreneurs”, however, in the tech space, more needs to be done to foster an ecosystem conducive to, and supportive of, entrepreneurship.
“The work of supporting entrepreneurs will never be done. Even in the most entrepreneur-friendly countries, there is massive amounts of work to do,” he said.
“With that said, the government [in Cameroon] has made some changes recently to support new and growing small businesses […]. Angel investors have also begun to support startups in a more coordinated effort with the creation of the Cameroon Angels Network,” Yoder says.
While entrepreneurship remains rife in – and incubators continue to flock to – key hotspots such as Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria, what is perhaps most indicative of the rise of tech entrepreneurship in Africa is the increase of incubators in less “fashionable” countries on the continent. The work of these incubators and their experiences across the continent certainly seem to evidence that Africa at large is beginning to live its era of tech entrepreneurship.