Durban Innovation Hub bids to keep entrepreneurs at “Silicon Beach”

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The Durban Innovation Hub (TDIH), launched in August last year, is bidding to stop the exodus of entrepreneurial talent from KwaZulu-Natal to the likes of Cape Town and Johannesburg with its blend of co-working space, mentorship and enterprise support.

The hub became a physical reality after partnering IT Varsity to take over a floor of its inner-city building last year, and has created a direct pipeline for college students to be exposed to innovation and entrepreneurship.

It aims to create a community of tools and an environment to help local entrepreneurs turn their ideas into businesses, with founder Nkululeko Mthembu telling Disrupt Africa the main aim was to address the shortfall that had developed in the province due to the brain-drain to other South African cities.

“Much of the Durban, KwaZulu-Natal talent is exported to places like Cape Town and Gauteng, which has created a tremendous shortfall in the development of a silicon community,” Mthembu said.

He said the city did however have prominent technology-geared startups in the areas of digital media and advertising, and was seeing the development of a “refreshing maker culture”.

“A lot of work has to be done to truly uproot and commercialise the inventiveness of Durban through the creation of a technology-entrepreneurship ecosystem allowing for bold action in the development of “Silicon Beach”,” he said.

TDIH looks to provide tutoring of IT and entrepreneurship through enjoyable educational sessions, while also providing a co-working environment, which Mthembu says is a “warm, open space that combines a beautiful and flexible environment for startups without the burden of heavy office infrastructure”.

Through its Durban Hub Enterprises programme, moreover, TDIH provides basic consultation services, with support in basic IT industry, business startups and entrepreneurship, through initiatives such as pitching sessions and meetups.

“The biggest mandate for TDIH is the building and accelerating of basic social equity (this refers to the basic skills level and knowledge systems) in the community we operate,” Mthembu said.

“Our key aim has thus become the education process around the need to better basic skills and knowledge. This will ramp-up the creation of an open-source like institution that allows previously disadvantaged community members to engage with the hub and walk out with basic skills and tools to make their ideas work.”

He a deep characteristic of Durban has been a “silo-like mentality” leading to the community pulling in different directions with little common cause.

“We wish to unify the community through events and bring out a collaborative spirit that will unlock talent, potential and unleash opportunities created through synergies of these new connections.”

Mthembu is pleased with the progress the hub has made in the six months since it was founded, obtaining a sponsored learnership from the Mentec Foundation, informal partnerships with the likes of Jozi Hub, Tshimologong Precinct, Innovate SA, Thoughtworks and The Innovation Hub, and hackathon arrangements with Geekulcha, Build, Durban Digital Day and WIFIRE.

In 2015, it is looking to create more opportunities for free education, establish a commercial unit of the hub for basic employment for members and sustainability, build an authentic and geared community in a bid for critical mass, and arrange formal partnerships with the public and private sectors, as well as academia.

The issue of hub sustainability has been a hot topic across Africa in recent months, and Mthembu said it was important for tech hubs to spread the doctrine of creating real solutions.

“Build African solutions to American problems,” he said. “There is a misinterpretation that Africans have African problems, however it is important to note that there is an underlying truth that much of African knowledge systems have been destroyed through ‘westernisation’.”

He said hubs should focus on job creation.

“Too many times the younger generation bases their inventive spirit on a single idea that has little or no impact on the context of Africa. Spread the African narrative and expose the personality that is indigenous to its people, thereby attracting foreign folks to our uniqueness.”

Though it is yet to make money, TDIH is registered as a for-profit business, and Mthembu said it was important for the hub’s sustainability for it to engage in for-profit mechanisms and avoid heavy reliance on donor funding, sponsorship and corporate social responsibility (CSR) spend.

“We do see ourselves venturing into creative and sustainable ways of creating income, one such way includes the establishing of an in-house development team made up of local students and IT enthusiasts,” Mthembu said.

“This allows a steady stream for the hub but also the creation of skills for previously marginalised students and bolsters the work experience for others who may seek to enter corporate structures.”

He said he envisioned TDIH establishing a strong research unit to embark on consultancy work.

“That may constitute a large bulk of the income through either international parties seeking detailed reports for the establishing of business and/or projects geared towards innovation,” he said.

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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