My cousin Osaretin Guobadia is a very dynamic person, and I struggle to keep pace with him. He left his Goldman Sachs investment banking job to come back home to lead change, and he has been succeeding.
He is on the board of Renaissance Capital and runs the infrastructure company DBH. He is quite passionate about everything related to Edo State and has genuine intentions. He set up a community of Edo State Professionals looking at how to bring progress to the state. One of the areas of improvement was innovation and technology.
Osaretin and I discussed setting up an innovation hub and co-working space for technology people at the heart of our hometown Benin City. We were all initially excited at the prospect, and I even registered the domain BeninHub.Com and started building on it. Osaretin also started doing some preliminary designs for the location and was already planning to allocate a lot of resources to it when I asked myself a question - why were we assuming that nothing was happening yet in the technology innovation space Benin City? Did we ask anyone?
We were falling into the regular trap common with African innovation support activities. We made stereotypical assumptions not backed with any data or facts and were already about to execute based on them.
I remembered that one of our technology giants in the country Yemi Keri who now leads the "Rising Tide" female investment movement was once the state's CIO. Logically, she would not have been there in Benin for that long without much happening there. I decided to do a simple web search, and it led me to discover the StartupGrind technology community in Benin (supported by Google for Entrepreneurs) which I now follow actively on social media. I have been impressed with the activities so far and decided that whatever we do in Benin must consider them.
Do hubs and co-working spaces add value?
The process we went through with Benin Hub made me question the basis for the creation and proliferation of physical spaces for innovation communities across Africa. Do they add value to the real communities? I recently read a complaint on Twitter by Neo Ighodaro the CTO of Hotels.ng about how difficult it was even to hold events at these spaces.
Very few people have asked how successful most physical spaces around Africa have been when it comes seeding and propagating innovative activities, the default assumption is that they are necessary. I even justified them myself in the past until I started to see the other side.
I met Thomas Van Halen of VC4Africa Research, together with my friend Kelechi Ofoegbu the COO of ImpactHub Accra, last week to discuss the issue of local innovation ecosystems and the value they create. Thomas had asked the question, do local ecosystems create value? After some minutes of the conversation, I realised that Kelechi and I were trying to provide personal validation as proof of an innovation ecosystem success in Africa rather than seek aggregate market data as proof.
I realised all we have been doing wrong at that meeting: We were selling the dream of innovation in Africa the same way real estate developers sell off-plan housing developments. They first build models then set up a show house or show apartment where they pitch to prospective buyers. The problem in Africa is that we have been changing the designs of these showpieces and moving furniture around, but we have never completed the housing developments. We have been in the business of showing real estate prospects and never finishing the projects.
Innovation communities are not about the real estate but about the people and how they work together to create value. Spaces are useful, but they are not enough. We should be asking ourselves critical questions after years of the existence of these spaces. Why have the communities not outgrown these spaces? Why do we keep repeating or recycling the same ideas at these locations or repeating the same models? Why have tech companies not grown fast enough to build their campuses locally and why do we keep depending on shared spaces? Are they a manifestation of stunted growth or are they responsible for it?
The Startup Pageant
The first time that I went to TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco was in September 2011. Some exciting startups were on display on what they call "Startup Alley." I went back there again in 2012 and saw a different set of startups and new founders. Most of the startups I met the previous year had all died or morphed into something else. I realised that while the event was more of "innovation theatre", idea iteration was also happening rapidly in that ecosystem. People were not stuck on the same ideas; they were dynamic.
We seem to have copied the same Silicon Valley theatre in Africa, but the difference in Africa is, each event I attend is typically filled with the same set of people or the same ideas recycled once again. Startups I meet are almost always into payments, e-commerce, education or agriculture with little iteration. This charade cannot continue. Building the future involves "building and growing". We cannot teach people how to dream big, but we should stop encouraging them into thinking small.