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Innovation hubs drive development in Africa

How does innovation come about in Africa, especially in the sustainability sector? What recent examples can be provided? In this interview, project manager Geraldine de Bastion explains the concept of innovation hubs and reports on some encouraging recent developments.

Ms de Bastion, what is an innovation hub exactly?

Geraldine de Bastion: Innovation hubs are playing an important role in Africa's rapidly growing technology and corporate scene. Hubs are being set up in an increasing number of cities, including Cairo, Addis Ababa and Dar es Salaam, acting as magnets for the local IT and creative industries.

Innovation hubs are an expression of the growing local IT and creative industries in African countries, and also serve to drive development in these sectors. They provide a physical space for local internet and IT communities, entrepreneurs, start-ups and creative minds. By running incubation and mentoring programmes, events and training, and providing internet access and office equipment, the hubs are supporting innovative local developments, not only in the IT and creative industries, but also in other sectors such as renewable energy and agriculture.

Similar developments are taking place in Asia and South America. The common aim of all the innovation hubs is to promote local innovation, encourage relevant actors to share knowledge early on in the development process and foster cooperation. The hubs support networking among local stakeholders and create links to investors and international organisations.

‘The concept of innovation hubs has filled a gap in many countries’

Where did the idea for the innovation hubs come from?

Geraldine de Bastion: The idea of creating physical spaces for networking and training is nothing new. Many African countries lack conventional structures for creating links between universities and businesses, providing young people with access to sponsorship opportunities, and assisting these young people in getting start-ups off the ground. Consequently, the concept of innovation hubs has filled a gap in many countries and been very well received.

In which African countries have innovation hubs proven effective?

Geraldine de Bastion: Innovation hubs have now been established in most of the continent's capital cities. This overview map shows the growing number of innovation hubs in Africa.

What successful inventions have already emerged?

Geraldine de Bastion: We have seen sophisticated mobile applications as well as everyday, low-tech solutions, both of which illustrate the huge creative potential of the hubs. A typical example is the development of a low-cost solar thermal system by icecairo, a green innovation hub set up by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). Another high-profile example is the prosthetic legs developed by designers and prosthetic limb manufacturers at an Indonesian innovation hub as an alternative to the expensive titanium prosthetic legs normally sold on the market. The construction manual is available to everyone and can be easily adapted to different requirements.

About Geraldine de Bastion

Geraldine de Bastion is an international consultant with a multicultural background based in Berlin, Germany. She is an expert on information and communication technology and new media for development and advises governmental organisations, NGOs and businesses on digital media and communication strategies. She also works with activists and bloggers around the world.

Geraldine is founder and co-ownder of the company Konnektiv and a freelance moderator and curator for international conferences, including re:publica, Germany's largest conference on Internet and Society. She has a passion for music, arts and new technologies and brings these interests into her work. In her free time, she is also an active member of the non-profit organisations Digitale Gesellschaft e.V and ICE Bauhaus.

Innovation hubs were presented at re:publica in 2013 – tell us more.

Geraldine de Bastion: The first global meeting of innovation centres took place in Berlin this year at re:publica 2013, Europe's largest conference on the internet and society, with over 5,000 visitors. In cooperation with the African network AfriLabs, the Academy for International Cooperation (AIZ) and GIZ Egypt gathered some 20 innovation hubs from Africa, Asia and South America at the Global Innovation Lounge from 6 to 8 May. The hubs used the Lounge to network with each other and with visitors to re:publica, discuss their experiences and approaches, and share the exciting and innovative technological activities going on around the world.

What is your favourite project?

Geraldine de Bastion: Open and free internet infrastructure remains an important topic and a major problem in many African countries, which is why I am impressed with the ActiveSpaces project in Cameroon. Given the lack of good-quality, affordable internet access in most regions, the project team has developed a virtual library that can be used without an internet connection. DataZone uses modern PCs and mobile phones, but runs on an LAN network. It has been tested by some 1,000 students at the University of Buea since January. The content can be used free of charge, as the service is financed by entertainment. The virtual library includes songs by local musicians that can be downloaded for a small charge. In future, DataZone will also be used to provide rural areas with access to knowledge.

What is planned for the future? What new innovation hubs can we expect?

Geraldine de Bastion: New hubs are being set up every day. We will have to wait and see which ones will enjoy long-term success over the next few years. The meeting at re:publica has strengthened the AfriLabs network and taken it forward. Plans are being made for a whole range of joint activities and projects to promote knowledge sharing and cooperation between innovation hubs. We hope to be able to present the results at re:publica 2014.

October 2013

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