The common model for incubators to focus on finding startups with a “big idea” is not appropriate for Africa, where the focus should be on promoting entrepreneurial and digital skills, according to Tendai Mashingaidze, manager of Zimbabwe’s Muzinda hub.
In an interview with Disrupt Africa, Mashingaidze said the desire to create tech hubs in Africa which provide short-term mentorship of startups with “big ideas” is flawed; focus should be placed on addressing unemployment by equipping young people with the skills to become entrepreneurs.
“The original model was an incubator model where Muzinda was incubating five startups who we perceived to have big innovative ideas. This is pretty much the most common model in Africa. We basically provided working space, mentorship and business support,” Mashingaidze said.
“However we sat with our board and asked ourselves some tough questions about the impact of our model in a country where 90 per cent of our people are unemployed. Global statistics show that only 5 per cent of startups being incubated for their ‘big ideas’ actually make it from concept/prototype to commercialization stage,” he said.
“We were not willing to be lured into the hype of being a tech hub, we were after impact. As a result we decided to shift our focus from the ‘big idea’ to one that was significantly weighted towards equipping our youth with digital skills and creating entrepreneurial digital job opportunities for them in the digital economy. In our view this was more pragmatic.”
According to Mashingaidze, Zimbabwe has a huge problem with unemployment, but its education system is of a very high quality with many young people graduating from higher education institutions. As such, the key focus should be on providing skills-based training, and encouraging young people to view themselves as players on the global entrepreneurial market.
“Zimbabwe has a 90 per cent unemployment rate. However Zimbabwe has the highest literacy rate in Africa, so there was no gap in education. The gap however was that our youth did not understand what digital skills are and how having these can allow them to participate in the digital economy,” Mashingaidze said.
“The beauty [of digital skills]is obviously that I do not have to leave my country in order to build an app for for a client sitting in Australia. With the internet my geographic positioning becomes irrelevant and so does the economic state of my country. All I need is the skill, internet connectivity and the tools to do the job, no work permit, passport and visa needed. I now belong to another economy, the digital economy,our youth need to know this – you can make money right here in Harare, Kigali or Monrovia.There is no need to feel stranded.”
Based on this, Muzinda hub is currently training over 1,000 young people, first in entrepreneurship, and then in digital skills. Following completion of training, graduates are placed into outsourced digital jobs.
“The bulk do the training at our campus in Harare where they go through entrepreneurial training and then start digital skills training soon after. Whilst digital skills are obviously the core skill that we are developing, we emphasize the fact that they are not developers but entrepreneurs, hence the entrepreneurial training,” Mashingaidze said.
According to Mashingaidze, tech hubs and incubators across Africa need to “ask themselves tough questions about their models”, and work needs to be done to find an incubation model that really works for Africa. He believes Africa has a significant role to play in the global economy as long as the necessary investment is made in skills-based training of youth.
“I truly believe of all African countries […] we are positioned to become a global destination for outsourced digital skills like India, provided significant investment is made to equip the youth with digital skills,” he said.
“Africa is looking for an incubation model that works. We are of the view that Silicon Valley models that were brought to Africa where ‘big ideas’ are incubated do not solve Africa’s most pertinent issues such as unemployment, in the short term,” he said.
“Very few hubs based on the ‘big idea’ incubation model in Africa are sustainable. Hubs in Africa need to ask themselves tough questions about their models.”
The key starting point for any incubator model must be job creation, Mashingaidze says.
“Africa has no time for hype around incubation models where we cannot measure the impact, we need to create jobs today and to me that is the most important deliverable for any hub,” he said.
“If we are not creating jobs we are playing. The digital jobs market is a market that has been tried and tested, the demand is there, however Africa needs to give its children the skills to tap into the opportunity. That is what Muzinda is doing and we want to be the leader in Africa when it comes to creating opportunities in the digital economy.”