University-led innovation hubs have been a norm globally, except in Africa. The Famous Silicon Valley in the United States developed around the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford universities, while key European knowledge regions developed at the Sophia Antipolis high-tech park in Côte d’Azur, France, and the Leuven region in Belgium. This geographical proximity and collaboration between innovation hubs and institution of research and learning have been a major driver of recent technological development in developed countries and the world at large.
In Africa, such geographical proximity and collaboration between innovation centres and universities are not common. What is common are universities setting up ‘entrepreneurship’ centres basically to teach students the basic theoretical aspects of entrepreneurship and basic skills like dressmaking, shoe and bag making, photography, soap making, etc., and at the other end, groups of individuals setting up business hubs and incubators for start-ups and entrepreneurs away from from universities in commercial cities like Lagos, Harare and Cairo.
Entrepreneurship centres in African universities are products of recent education policies in many countries in the continent aimed at equipping students to become job creators in response to the high rate of unemployment in the continents, especially among young people. Of Africa’s nearly 420 million young people aged between 15-35, one-third are unemployed and discouraged, another third are vulnerably employed and only one in six are on wage employment.
The curriculum and activities of these entrepreneurship centres hardly involve the teaching of innovation processes or the development of “new idea, device or method”. There are no significant collaborations between these centres and research labs in the universities for idea development, process and product designs, neither do they engage in such in-house. Some of these centres are not even entrepreneurial. Most are nothing more than skill acquisition units or academic departments that teaches students about entrepreneurship.
There are few hubs in the continent dedicated mainly to provides subject-matter expertise on technology trends, knowledge and strategic innovation management, and industry-specific insights. What is common are business hubs and incubator that helps new and startup companies to develop by providing office space and services such as mentoring and management training. The most popular of such hubs are the tech and agribusiness hubs.
Though some of these hubs have managed to develop innovative solutions and start-ups, they are not focused on innovation. Unlike a typical innovation hub in Europe or America where industry entrepreneurs and academic researchers work in partnership to deliberately and systematically instigate breakthrough, hubs in Africa are simply a community of entrepreneurs engaging in trial-and-error approach to innovation. These hubs are not research-driven neither do they collaborate with the academic researchers.
There is a need for African universities to step-ups and assume a developmental role in the continent. The role of the university has evolved from performing conventional research and education functions to serving as an innovation-promoting knowledge hub. African universities must upgrade from running simple skills acquisition centres to running research-driven innovation hubs. While delivering skills and expertise, they should as well as create enabling environments for problem-solving, solution development, product and process design, as well incubation of entrepreneurs and businesses.
However, some universities on the continent are working towards setting themselves up as catalysts of innovation and entrepreneurship and has made some progress. According to a Forbes article on university-led innovation hubs in Africa, the University of Nairobi and the American University in Cairo were mentioned as good examples, while South African universities like Stellenbosch University, the University of Cape Town (UCT) and University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) are leading the charge. For instance, Stellenbosch University runs its own incubator – LaunchLab – and also invests in some student-run tech startups.
According to the article, the university has several start-ups such as Custos Media Technologies, a bitcoin-based anti-piracy startup launched out of LaunchLab by G-J van Rooyen who was an associate professor at Stellenbosch, and Sxuirrel, an on-demand storage space startup founded by Michael-John Dippenaar. Dippenaar who first encountered LaunchLab after winning a competition run by the incubator was given startup fund and other supports.
van Rooyen explains that LaunchLab had been a great space from which to grow an early-stage company. “As a startup, you’re constantly juggling concerns and issues. Being in a supportive environment where space and facilities are one less thing to worry about makes a huge difference,” Van Rooyen says. “Since LaunchLab is a hub for startups and investors, it directly impacted our fundraising efforts, and introduced us to our angel investor.”
In Nigeria, the establishment of university-led innovation hubs is still at a planning stage. The federal government of Nigeria only recently revealed its plan to build technology hubs in Nigerian universities across the nation’s six geopolitical zones. There are also efforts from NGOs to help establish innovation hubs in Nigerian universities. The not-for-profit organization, Emerging Young Entrepreneur Initiative (EYE Africa), with the aim to equipping university students with the tools necessary to start, run and grow successful agribusinesses in Africa has been working with the entrepreneurship centres in Nigerian Universities to set up agribusiness incubation centres that will take advantage of the research faculty of the host universities.
African governments through funding of innovation hubs in universities can drastically drive national development and create jobs. Also, a university can generate revenue, attract funds and commercialize university technology through innovative hubs. As Bakang Moetse, the Impact Investing Project Manager at the Bertha Centre – a dedicated entrepreneurial unit within the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town, put it. There is a competitive advantage to be gained in becoming leaders within this field of research for universities interested in taking on a more active role in this regard, and this can further bolster their credentials as a centre of innovation.