Ekeledo: Internet Penetration, Digital Adoption Key to Tech Innovation

Executive Director of AfriLabs, Anna Ekeledo, speaks on the need to deepen internet penetration in Africa in order to drive digital adoption. She also spoke about what AfriLabs is doing to promote technology hubs in Africa, Nigeria inclusive. Emma Okonji presents the excerpts:

Tell us about AfriLabs and its operations across Africa since its inception?
AfriLabs is a network organisation that supports the growth of technology hubs and their community to raise high potential entrepreneurs that will stimulate economic growth and social development in Africa. Founded in 2011 with five hubs across four African countries, we have grown exponentially in the last 10 years, and currently stand at over 300 member hubs across 51 African countries. These hubs serve as centres that provide support to African entrepreneurs, innovators, developers and youths, by providing physical co-working and dedicated office space, training, business, legal and financial support, helping to raise successful entrepreneurs that will create jobs and develop innovative solutions to African problems. At AfriLabs, we envision a thriving innovation economy in Africa, driven by the power of our community and we achieve this through capacity building, financing, networking, policy advocacy, and providing insightful, reliable data.

How will you describe the growth of the African tech ecosystem in the last 10 years, and how has AfriLabs impacted that growth?
As you know, the African tech ecosystem has witnessed increased levels of growth in the past few years and the continued rise of internet penetration and digital adoption in Africa has ushered in an impressive boom of innovation across the continent. Sectors such as trade, e-commerce, banking/finance, communications, health and more are few of the areas that have been highly impacted by technology and innovation. However, this growth did not happen in a vacuum. It is largely attributed to the innovation community, particularly tech/innovation hubs who have played a crucial role in nurturing successful entrepreneurial systems. These hubs provide them with access to funding, capacity building, networking and knowledge sharing. Looking back to the 90s and early 2000s, only few would have associated sub-Saharan Africa with technological innovation due to the continent’s increased level of infrastructural deficit, low knowledge transfer and lack of an enabling environment for innovators to thrive. However, the emergence of support systems like AfriLabs have been pivotal to the growth of a thriving and inspiring innovation economy in Africa.

What are the key benefits that innovation hubs offer in raising high potential entrepreneurs?
Technology and innovation hubs within the AfriLabs network provide convening spaces for innovators, entrepreneurs, developers and start-ups to come together to create, innovate and collaborate with other stakeholders such as corporates, development agencies, government and investors to achieve their goals of building innovative products and businesses. They also provide incubation and acceleration support services, including product development, business, legal, financial and operations support. Hubs also link start-ups to a larger network of investors, mentors and links to markets.

AfriLabs has over 300 member hubs across 51 African countries, that’s some sensational growth from five hubs across four countries in 2011. What would you say have been the key factors driving this growth?
I would say three key factors have influenced this growth, including community, value and impact. In terms of community, we are very strong on community building and we are a family at AfriLabs. In addition, we constantly work with and for our hub members and their community members to create and deliver value to them. Finally, we are impact driven and focus on not only supporting hubs directly but also on taking a multistakeholder approach to build and impact the African continent through the entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem.

Tell us about some milestones you have been able to accomplish both within the organisation and as an individual?
In the past five years, I have successfully established the AfriLabs Secretariat (HQ) in Abuja Nigeria and built a strong team in Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana. As an organisation, we have grown significantly from 5 hubs across four countries in 2011 to 40 hubs across 20 African countries in 2016, to 320 hubs across over 51 African countries and the Diaspora, with a broader community of over one million entrepreneurs, innovators, developers and creatives. Every year since 2016, we have also consistently held the largest gathering of the innovation players, with a different African location hosting each year. These gatherings have been previously held in Ghana, Egypt, Tanzania, Ethiopia in partnership with the African Union and this year in Nigeria, where we celebrated our 10th anniversary. As an organisation and a community, we have actively worked with other groups to influence policies across Africa.

Building on our consistent support to hubs through Capacity building activities and programmes with strong partners, we’ve recently launched the AfriLabs Hub Academy, which will host the first of its kind Hub Management Curriculum with content, toolkits and other forms of resources for African hubs. Developed by Africans and co-certified by a top African institution, Strathmore University in Kenya and AfriLabs. Finally, we just launched the African Union Digital and Innovation Fellowship Programme, supported by GIZ and implemented by AfriLabs, a Fellowship focused on identifying tech fellows across Africa and deploying them to various African Union organs. Over the years, we’ve celebrated collaborations and long term agreements with development and multilateral and organisations the African Development Bank, Agence Française de Développement (AFD), United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), UNDP Accelerator Labs, the Nigerian, Kenyan and Ghanaian National Hub Networks, GIZ and the African Union.

Technology hubs and tech start-ups in Nigeria and in most African countries, lack the necessary funding for expansion. How will AfriLabs address such challenges?
We understand the importance of funding for a more sustainable African Startup Ecosystem and collaborate with like-minded bodies to provide funding for our network and their community. A recent initiative we are super proud of is Catalytic Africa, a joint initiative by the African Business Angel Network (ABAN) which is a matching fund for African startups, with an innovative model that will significantly increase the amount of investment that goes into African startups, increase the number of angel investors investing, increase the support system for startups through hubs and provide data for better decision making by hubs, startups, investors and institutional investors. This pool serves as a matching or co-investment fund to encourage investment in viable AfriLabs-affiliated start-ups by verified angel investors. The success of this initiative will lead to a hive of advantages including more African start-ups that are better funded and are better monitored; Hubs that are able to attract and retain quality start-ups and a viable hub sustainability model; Angel investors who are able to invest in a larger portfolio, de-risked significantly by the monitoring and reporting from the hubs; Better visibility, transparency and objective impact reporting for the funders and Overall stronger, more sustainable African startup ecosystem.

What are some of the challenges you have faced during this pandemic and what lessons would you say you have learnt going forward?
During the pandemic, we had to redesign most of our planned activities that involve physical engagements with our community members across Africa. In 2020, we canceled all our physical workshops and our planned annual gathering and made it all virtual. Our community members also suffered economic losses from a loss of clients and physical activities, which brought regular income. Despite these challenges, we leveraged the power of technology in driving inclusion and participation for all stakeholders. During the pandemic, we adopted a virtual and hybrid approach for most of our activities including our workshops and Annual Gathering, which was held in Abuja, Nigeria.

We also saw an increased uptake in tech solutions such as Healthtech, EdTech, Logistics tech and e-Commerce. In addition, we rolled out programmes such as EdTech and COVID Action, which involved identifying innovative solutions to tackle the effects of COVID-19. We had to leverage local scouts within our community to directly interact with communities and innovators in rural areas. We also saw firsthand the importance of technology access to every segment of the African population and this has increased our drive to prioritise advocating for technology inclusion and affordable accessible broadband connectivity.

Gender inequality prevails in Africa in the acquisition of technology skills. What could be done to address the imbalance?
We need to invest in more Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and startups owned and headed by women and provide them with the right capacity building, mentorship and market opportunities. As society grows its digital economy, it is critical that we position women to be successful within this economy. This includes creating access and opportunity for girls to learn about Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) study and career pathways and encouraging and expecting girls to join the STEM workforce. First, through the education system, we need to get all girls in school. Also, STEM subjects should be compulsory in the early years of primary and first half of secondary school. Schools also need to show the range of opportunities available by deliberately infusing stories of women’s contributions in the STEM fields and how it benefits girls to pursue advanced coursework in this area. This helps students see themselves in such fields and gives them a chance to find the right fit for themselves.

In few words, how will you describe Anna Ekeledo?
Anna is the Executive Director of AfriLabs, a Network Organisation of over 300 technology innovation hubs spread across 49 African countries; leading AfriLabs to develop programmes and building partnerships that support African innovation hubs and other stakeholders to raise high potential entrepreneurs that stimulus economic growth and social development in Africa.

Anna is an International Speaker, Trainer, Innovation Ecosystem Builder and Mentor. She is also an advisor; among several advisory roles; a member of the Advisory Board at African Europe Innovation Partnership, an initiative supported by the European Commission, she also chairs the Working Party on African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Negotiations, e-Commerce Forum Africa (EFA) and is a mentor on Google Launchpad Accelerator Africa for Entrepreneurs.

She is the Regional Innovation Lead Africa, at the EdTech Hub – the world’s largest education technology research and innovation project which seeks to drive research and adoption of evidence-based education technology in developing countries supported by the World Bank, FCDO and Bill and Melinda Gates.

Prior to joining AfriLabs, Anna was involved in pioneering various impact-driven projects and new business units with organisations such as the Visiola Foundation, Wild Fusion Digital Centre, Google, Lagos Business School – Nigeria and Ingenico – a French global financial technology company.

Anna is a member of the Africa-Europe Foundation Digital Strategy Task Force, she is also engaged at a High-Level Policy Dialogue on Science, Technology and Innovation working group AU-EU Science, Technology and Innovation (STI).

Anna has a first-class degree in Psychology from Covenant University, Nigeria and an M.Sc. International Marketing Management from Leeds University Business School, University of Leeds, UK.

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