Universities Are Key To A ‘Silicon Africa’

By Tom Jackson AFKI Original Published: September 28, 2016, 4:36 am
Strathmore University (mage: ethics-talk.blogspot.com)

The locations of knowledge regions such as Silicon Valley and Route 128 are not by accident.

Silicon Valley developed around Stanford University, while Route 128 sprung up around MIT. The same process has been seen in Europe, at the Sophia Antipolis high-tech park in Cote d Azur, France and the Leuven region in Belgium.

If Africa is serious in its goal of becoming a breeding ground for hi-tech innovations and startups, it should bear these lessons in mind. With their links to industry, access to research, and top drawer facilities, universities can be a catalyst to a Silicon Africa.

This is not something that has been the case too often, thus far at least. But, in certain cases, such as the C4DLab at the University of Nairobi and the LaunchLab at Stellenbosch University, universities are realizing they have an important part to play in encouraging tech startups.

The LaunchLab and C4DLab incubate and support entrepreneurs, while Stellenbosch also has an excellent technology transfer office that helps them patent and protect their innovations. In some cases, the universities also provide financial backing to companies.

What these universities have realized is that, as institutions, their role has changed. Whereas in principle their primary goals should be to ensure students are adequately trained for the job market, Africa’s unemployment issues have undermined this.

Almost half of South Africans between the ages of 15 and 24 are out of work, as are 20 per cent of Kenyans of the same age. Universities have been reduced to churning out graduates that head straight for unemployment or jobs not befitting their training.

Forward thinking institutions like Stellenbosch and the University of Nairobi, then, are focusing on training students to be job creators, and start their own businesses.

Job creators

“With the increase in uncertainty in employability mainly brought on by the ever-increasing pace of advancements in various industry sectors, we need to expose students to the possibilities that entrepreneurship offers,” Philip Marais, chief executive officer (CEO) of the LaunchLab, told Disrupt Africa in April.

“It is an ideal time to stimulate entrepreneurial thinking among students as the world has been introduced to global and local entrepreneurial role models.”

Boosting entrepreneurship, in fact, fits the mandate of universities, in that it marries the theoretical with the practical. There is a requirement now for tertiary institutions to go beyond providing just technical skills and knowledge, they also need to lay on an enabling environment to help students to commercialize academic projects and ideas.

African universities, in fact, should become the bedrock of innovation, as they have done in the developed world. They can provide the academic environment, collaborative atmosphere, infrastructure and guidance to spur innovation among students.

There is plenty of evidence that the level of innovation within universities is high. Stellenbosch’s big hitter is Custos Media Technologies, which embeds bitcoin bounties in digital media in a bid to cut down on piracy using the blockchain. The startup – launched by an academic at the university – was given funding, and incubated at the LaunchLab.

The C4DLab is proud of Chura, which allows mobile subscribers to leap from one network to another through the transfer of airtime between SIMs. The company has launched an Airtime for Cash service that allows the conversion of airtime into mobile money credit.

Chura co-founder Samuel Njuguna says there were numerous benefits to being incubated at a university, including the availability of resources and connections to industry players.

“A majority of business leaders out there are from the university we were being incubated in, hence it was easy to get an introduction to them or meet them,” Njuguna said told AFKInsider.

“The university was focused on ensuring we succeed for them to build their name, and not necessarily make money out of us. We got advice from lecturers from different schools at the university, and riding on the university brand name enabled us to be trusted by our customers.”

The success of startups like Custos and Chura means the trend of African universities backing student entrepreneurs is likely to continue, with successful ventures the best stimulus for student talent and university participation.

“Tertiary institutions provide an excellent launch pad for new business. With publicly funded infrastructure, world-class expert researchers, promising future leaders, bright young minds and skilled student interns, imagine a hub at every tertiary institution in Africa from which a promising, thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem can be build,” said Marais.

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