From May 1st to 8th, I had the honor to be invited to the 3rd Global Innovation Gathering, in Berlin, as a speaker on the topic of Big Data for development. This one week get-together of some of the most successful tech hubs from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, took part in the framework of the re:publica conference with the support of the GIZ. This is one of the major internet and digital conference in Europe, gathering 6000 participants and 400 speakers from all over the world and with special focus on privacy and internet governance.

Who was there?

Around 30 hubs from Africa where, present, including the large majority of the Afrilabs members. These hubs include around 40% co-working spaces, 40% hacker and maker spaces and 20% accelerators and incubators like CTIC Dakar.

Hub sustainability still the major concern – flexible model is the only way to reach it

Not surprisingly, hubs ‘sustainability and there financial model was still the main topic of the workshops we had together. Indeed, most of the African and also global hubs, still struggle to envision a clear path towards financial sustainability. Especially for co-working spaces and maker spaces, the membership model doesn’t seem to be working. For example, some spaces had a community of more than 70 000 people, but only around 30 or 50 regular paying members. Several of them generate revenue through their events or more precisely space rental, consulting and web development services which they outsource to their community with a revenue sharing.

Additionally, more and more hubs are or are thinking of developing incubation and acceleration services for their startups companies. The model they have naturally in mind is mostly based on equity, but this latter doesn’t seem to work either all over sub-Saharan Africa, include South Africa. The reason behind this failure appear to be the lack of angel or seed investors, to whom the incubator could sell his shares once the startup raise some funds. In this context, CTIC Dakar and its flexible revenue sharing model, which brought us at 75% sustainability in 2014, attracted many interest from all the hubs represented.

However, the model you choose is extremely sensitive and dependent to your very local context. In this case, flexibility and diversification is the key word. Indeed, the most successful hubs so far, have been awesome at rapidly developing new services and business unit using their respective value proposition (could be the community, the technical skills, the consulting background, the startup support knowledge, events, etc.). At CTIC Dakar in 2014 for instance, we generate around 20% of our revenue through our incubatees, 40% through event and 25% through various business development services (business trips, consulting to other incubators, events supports, etc.). The remaining 15% was a grant we receive from a local private sponsor.

New HR management models

For most of the hub represented, the team has been key in their success. However, they face the same struggle as us at attracting the best talent and retaining them with the small resources that they have. You can only work on passion a limited time…it doesn’t feed a family.

Interestingly, a new model ins being tried out by IceAlex, the co-working space based in Alexandria, Egypt. Out of a HR crisis where 3 of their key employees left for various non-professional reasons, came out with a fascinating model: the entire hub and its activities are managed by cohort of interns! These fresh graduates or students come for 3 months and forms team of 3-4 on the 4 business unit the hub has. In total, it’s around 12 interns who run the whole hubs at all time. They have monthly report to the hub director but also are self-evaluated by another group of interns. Results: extreme dynamism and innovation, network and communication effect and almost no HR costs (no salary, only the best ones received a stipend at the end). As an intrapreneur you will also be part of a team developing existing income streams, creating new ones and working together to set, achieve and surpass organisational goals. To achieve this you will absorb the skills of strategic planning, teamwork, conflict resolution and other intrapreneurship related skills. Of course, you can not apply this model to an incubator or accelerator, where you need experienced business developer and long term relationship with your incubatees, but this could be a very interesting model for the majority of other tech hubs.

Pro and cons of having the gathering in Europe instead of Africa

Naturally, people ask if we should still host the GIG within the framework of Re:publica in Germany or do it in Africa. Cost may roughly be the same. Of course the symbol would be important and the possibilities to attract more African stakeholders would be increased but also, we would miss the openness part to the European tech scene and the opportunity to showcase the amazing things that are happening all over Africa and the MENA region right now.

Internet as utility and users’ privacy not a concern yet in Africa

What struck me along the week of re:publica talks, is the intensity of the debate around user privacy and the freedom of internet that Europe has. I feel that most of us in Africa are not at this stage yet. Almost like the questions of environment, we are more focus on our growth and belonging to the global economy than about nature preservation or internet rights. But that’s a mistake, if we don’t claim ownership of our internet, our Governments will take a huge advantage of it, not mentioning the international corporations.

Big Data a huge opportunity for Africa, but we have to insure ethics around it

Invited to present the opportunity of Big Data in a development context, I spoke a little about the Data 4 Development challenge that we organized with Orange. The results have been publish few weeks ago and are of a great interest (www.d4d.orange.com). Below are the few key points that emerge from the panel discussion which followed the presentation:

  • Big-data and open-data represent a tremendous opportunity in our data-empty environment.
  • This may have a great impact improving Governments’ decision making and business operations.
  • Big Data analysis is only a high definition picture of the problems, the most important part is what comes out after in terms of solutions and execution (often the lacking part in many countries)
  • Big Data only give you what happened in the past, and my feeling is that is not necessarily the best way to build the future since very few disruptive technologies can come out of that, only incremental ones. What African countries and population need the most?
  • Ethics is a key concern, since privacy laws will not be in place or not enforced anytime soon, we should make sure that independent ethics committees and data anonymisation are implemented for each big data project carried out by NGOs or Corporates.