Members of tech hubs and innovation centres across the African continent are being invited to take part in a $15,000 competition to develop tools and processes for collaboration and knowledge sharing. Developers are being encouraged to find ways which will help smaller and struggling tech centres emulate successful organisations such as iHub in Nairobi, which has launched 152 successful startups to date.
The Collaboration Challenge was launched at DEMO Africa this week, and is being run by AfriLabs — an umbrella body which boasts 35 of the 90 or so tech hubs on the continent as its members.
"The idea is to promote collaboration between hubs," says Tayo Akinyemi, director of AfriLabs, adding that many hubs struggle to survive beyond their initial funding period. While there's no shortage of innovative ideas, monetising them and making them sustainable presents significant difficulties in many economies.
"Challenges like finding the right partners, determining the correct strategy and sustainability model, having the right team and skills in the hub, and the involvement of government can be difficult to navigate," Akinyemi says.
Microsoft's Innovation Hubs manager Annie Njenga says that successful tech clusters around the world depend on close links between industry, academia and business, and its those kinds of relationships that she's keen to foster throughout the AfriLabs network.
"Collaboration fuels innovation. It encourages people to learn from each other and build on better and bigger ideas," Njenga says. "Innovation hubs give developers a collaborative space where organisations can assist them with the technical and business skills needed to get their businesses off the ground. They bring different people together who otherwise would never have met, and create successful companies that strengthen local economies."
Small businesses and startups are increasingly seen as vital for the future of many African economies where unemployment is high. The World Bank claims that for every high tech job in a community, three more jobs are also created, and its InfoDev arm helps to facilitate investment in entrepreneurial activities on the continent.
The $15,000 prize will come from Microsoft's 4Afrika fund, and the firm will also provide training and support for the winning concept. Developers can submit ideas and vote on other people's using the social network Hylo before 24th October. Only members of an AfriLabs tech hub will be allowed to enter.
There is, of course, a catch. If an entry is application-based, it must run on Windows and use Microsoft's Azure service as a back end.
Akinyemi says that AfriLabs is also working on a separate project to put together a "hub in a box" concept, which will be a toolkit of best practices for getting new hubs off the ground.