On May 2014 was hold in Berlin, Germany, the 2nd Afrilabs annual meeting. Supported by the German Cooperation (GIZ), more than 35 people representing the 29 hubs, co-working spaces or incubators, members of the Afrilabs network, flew to Berlin to work on the organization future. After one week spend with this amazing people for all over the continent, here are my first feelings:

1) We are at the dawn of a connected pan-African tech scene – where people who trust each other share, learn and grow a knowledge that is very specific to our African context. When I was in the room with these 30+ people, I had this strange feeling that all of them were amazing young leaders, who don’t even realize the power that they may have in their hands. Just imagine what will be the African tech and business ecosystem within 5 or 10 years? For a better sense of the context, the first hub/co-working spaces emerge from Kenya and Uganda no more than 5 years ago. There is now more than a 100 of us (map) and the list is growing.

Afrilabs aims at connecting the most advanced, dynamic of us, which share pan-African values and a strong local entrepreneur’s empowerment capability.

The network grew from 19 hubs in 2013 to 29 in May 2014. All this means that the 30+ leaders we had in the room are the pioneers of something that is getting big (and hopefully impactful) and that we have to strengthen the Afrilabs networks and the trust between the members so that we know were the African tech scene is going. Without clear values and vision of what should be the continent tech ecosystem and the role of tech hubs, we may once again be the prey of international influence, being government or corporates.

2) The international interest in the African tech scene is growing rapidly. Just as a proof of this is the pretty important involvement (financially and in terms of representation) that the GIZ gave to the Afrilabs network and the gathering if it’s member. They are feeling something that other public development agencies do not. Of course, nobody know where all this is going and it is too early to draw any hypothesis, but interestingly enough, the German may well have touch on something which could be the future or international development cooperation : a multilateral support to network organization empowering technologies leaders in emerging countries. We should study this and extract some number, but touching these highly influential and connected people probably brings a very efficient “impact-pro-dollar-ratio”. You may also replace impact by “image” depending on your view on international development aid. However, government donors have been preceded in their hook on African tech hubs and entrepreneurs by several and a growing number of private foundations like Hivos, Omidyar Network, Rockefeller and know corporates like Microsoft, Google and telco operators like Millicom (behind the brand tigo).

3) The models or interacting (“influencing”) are multiple and depends often on the organization’s capacity to deal with small investment or grants.

The most natural one will be to support directly local tech hubs or its entrepreneurs in each countries. This can be more valuable if you have a strong local leadership, thus bringing more adapted win-win types of relations. However, it would be harder to convince partners first since the ecosystem is still small.

The second option will thus be to go through network organizations like Afrilabs to be able to target a large number of countries and hubs without increasing your management costs. Hopefully, this will also enable us as hubs to have stronger negotiation capacity on the various deals – therefore making sure they fit with the network long term strategy, vision and values.

Another option is the one chosen by the now (in?)famous Rocket Internet or African Holding Company, having the telecom operator Millicom – behind the brand Tigo – as a major stakeholder. They support top down copycat e-commerce platforms and recruit in the targeted countries a business and sales team lead by high profile young managers, generally coming from the diaspora. The vast majority of their technical capacity (developers) being based at the companies headquarter in Germany. On the other side of the spectrum, Millicom is also currently launching a startup accelerator in Kigali, Rwanda. They take around 30% equity stake for a 25,000USD seed capital investment (I will let you do the math for the valuation of the companies!).

But let’s not be too critical of those models, at the end of the day, they are drawing attention to the continent technology sphere and they help bring or build amazing tech and business skills in Africa. Let us also acknowledge that, whatever their form, interest or vision, those supports are also pioneer and are high risk takers who believe in a bright future or the African continent (heu… am I being to naïve here?)

4) The importance of pan-African and local leadership shaping this ecosystem

For bad or worse, the international influence over the African tech scene will grow, and rapidly in the years to come. Our challenge as managers of local technology organization is to build a strong local and pan-African leadership so that instead of following their goals only, we make them empower us in the realization of our vision. Therefore, it is KEY for all us individually and collectively to work and build our vision and values. Doing so, we will of course be contested thus creating other organizations with other perspectives and missions. But we have to do it, if we stay to long in a kind of weak consensus state because we fear to hurt each other, we will end up, like many of previous NGO in or continent – completely overtaken by international organizations. Furthermore, let us make sure we educate and build the knowledge of or local decisions makers and that we hold them accountable, otherwise, they will easily be drafted on the wrong side.

Once again in Africa, it is all about leadership.

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