Innovation and Incubation Spaces in South Africa

015As one might expect, innovation and incubation spaces are springing up across South Africa.  I was fortunate enough to spend a whole day at the RLabs based in Bridgetown, on the Cape Flats in Cape Town.  There was a tangible buzz in the air as entrepreneurs mingled with students of the Amsterdam Business School.

020RLabs now employs 49 people and generate income through Mxit, partnerships and contracts as well as grants.  Their GROW academy trains 1000 people a year in UCT accredited courses around issues like idea generation and entrepreneurship.

They support tech entrepreneurs who are developing a wide range of projects and it’s utterly inspiring to see how they’ve managed to transform ex drug addicts and former gang members into social entrepreneurs by simply believing in them and providing them with crucial training and support.  Some of the products being developed there include Urahisi, a mobile ordering platform for businesses to link with consumers, She’s the Geek women’s empowerment network, Uusi for seeking out job opportunities and ChiSana, an App to support virtual gangland tours.

Their Jamiix counselling and support platform allows conversations from multiple platforms and has raised 1.5 million rand revenue (around £100k) through grants and double this in turnover which contributes to RLab operating costs.

I was fascinated to hear about RLab’s social franchise model.  They are now partnering with organisations in Nigeria, Tanzania, Namibia, Sierra Leone, Somaliland and Zimbabwe to replicate elements of their model including their online academy, idea generation and incubation processes, with the hope of having a catalytic effect on the number and quality of projects being developed in-country.  We wish them all the very best in this ambitious and valuable venture.

Bandwidth Barn (2)I was also able to meet with Andrea Bohmert of Bandwidth Barn, an incubator for ICT enabled companies which supports entrepreneurs through training, workshops, mentorship and Hackathons.  They focus primarily on commercial ventures but support some social projects such as an application for water utility facilities to manage usage and billing at municipality level, an App to report on clinical trials, collect data and obtain feedback from Drs in the field and an App which notifies people in rural areas when a Dr is coming to their area.

In Pretoria, the MLab is focusing on supporting tech MLab (1)innocation and creating sustainable business models around products.  They’ve been working with Gauteng province to run App competitions on public participation, transport, and safety and have successfully launched Go Metro from the space which is being used by metro rail to provide scheduling and notifications for late transport, enable citizens to report problems and to notify employers when trains are late.

They currently support 13 projects, taking entrepreneurs through a 4 month growth lab once established and linking them into funders.  They also identify traditional entrepreneurs and help them go mobile.

Jozi Hub (2)I was able to meet with one of our old friends Gustav Praekelt who runs the Praekelt Foundation.  They have launched Jozi Hub, a new tech innovation space in Johannesburg’s trendy 44 Stanley District, and Indigo recently awarded them a grant to support a tech for transparency stream which will be running from it.

The Praekelt Foundation have a track record in building successful products including:

  • Ummeli – like a Linked In for the base of the pyramid where users can build profiles, connect, read success stories, volunteer and access jobs board which has over 100,000 users
  • Vumi which extracts the complexity of working with mobile operators and enables people to build highly scalable platforms using USSD, SMS, Mxit, Facebook, BBM, Twitter, IVR and What’s App.  Users can also create puzzles and quizzes.  Data costs are dramatically reduced and they have around 30 active clients including Thought Works and UNICEF
  • Java Script Sandbox which enables complicated campaigns with a small bit of script
  • A USSD Application enabling free access to Wikipedia which he wants to utilise for government data distribution
  • Young Africa Live which has 1.5 million users, 90% in SA but expanding in Kenya and Tanzania (around 10,000 users per month).  Nike Foundation is now doing a version for Ethiopia and Rwanda focusing on teenage girls.
  • Government Zero (not complete) which provides basic services for citizens e.g. info on housing, citizenship, pensions, etc.
  • Info4Africa which locates your nearest clinic for HIV testing and they hope to expand to schools, housing lists, etc.
  • MAMA-funded by Johnson & Johnson and USAID and provides stage based messaging for mothers, mobi web, quizzes, etc.

With all these spaces springing up to support tech entrepreneurs, it is my hope that there will be an increased interest in the social space.  This remains a challenge in a country where most talented techies are rapidly whipped up by industry and those who remain entrepreneurs often focus on commercial ventures.  It will be interesting to see how tech spaces contribute to the quality of tech products tackling critical social challenges.