Hub sustainability is “inextricably linked” to the impact of a particular hub or incubator, according to Oluseye Bassir, chief operating officer (COO) of government-funded non-profit Lagos incubator iDEA Nigeria.
Hub sustainability has become a much debated issue over the past year, with AfriLabs director Tayo Akinyemi saying last year African tech hubs were fragile and had no clear path towards long-term sustainability.
Akinyemi further advised last month that African tech hubs must act like startups if they are to be financially sustainable long-term.
Speaking on the subject in an interview with Disrupt Africa, Bassir said sustainability was linked to the different types of impact a hub could have.
“That impact could be commercial, where we find the best teams with the most scalable offerings, and we actually help them along, such that a number of our startups in which we take equity then become winners,” he said.
“Impact could also be social or socio-economic. Some of the impact we’re looking to make in that direction, is to contribute to the growth of a technological cluster that attracts and develops very highly skilled people, building viable companies that collaborate and compete within our space.”
The Information Technology Developers Entrepreneurship Accelerator (iDEA) was launched in April 2013 in order to assist Nigerian entrepreneurs and accelerate the development of the tech industry in Nigeria.
“Our mission is to help Nigerian tech entrepreneurs build successful companies. If we do that, and do that consistently, then we would be delivering value for the economy, for tech companies, for our startups, and for society and money will be attracted to that value,” Bassir said.
With that mission in mind, iDEA has announced a number of programmes of late. Disrupt Africa reported it had opened applications for early-stage or growth startups looking to take part in its incubator programme, while it has also launched startup mentoring programme GEM.
Last month it launched the Fostering and Accelerating Startups in Tech (FAST) entrepreneurship programme, which involves carefully selected courses and a focus on startup needs, while it has also agreed a partnership with MicroMentor, which looks to connect entrepreneurs with mentorship from across the world.
Bassir said iDEA – which currently has 46 teams under incubation – started work with startups at three different stages of their development.
“They could come in with just a promising idea. The goal at that point is to get them to prototype or to an alpha version, or an early version of whatever it is they’re building,” he said.
“We only work with software or software-enabled businesses. Other founders come to us with an initial product, or offering, and our work in that case is to help them get technical and commercial validation. This could be in form of a beta launch, or a pilot deployment, or a field test.”
He said each team’s milestones and successes are set and measured differently.
“For people who come in with a product or offering that is ready to launch, our goal is to help them gain market share, and start to position for VC funding. We do all this by tracking their progress and helping them find resources to overcome their challenges,” Bassir said.
“We provide entrepreneurship and technical training at every step of the way and we get them to work with experienced coaches and mentors as well as our team. We give them the reach of iDEA’s business networks and relationships. We also give them space with top notch always-on facilities. We give them free consultations with professional services firms like lawyers, accountants, HR consultants and the like. We’re very much focused on building businesses, and there is a clear business logic to all that we do.”
Currently the incubator’s business model is to take grants, subsidise startups, and take equity stakes in the “cream” of these startups, while adding substantial value.
“We expect these equity holdings to grow in value. We will remain flexible about our business model and positioning so that we can pivot if we need to,” Bassir said.
iDEA believes there is much “creative energy” in the Nigerian tech scene, with the startup culture evident for the last few decades in the United States (US) new in the country but beginning to take root in the popular imagination.
“This excites me and suggests there is a lot to come,” Bassir said.
“For one, it can become an economic model, and become embedded in Nigerian consciousness as a way to build wealth and value.”
He said, however, that the sector does face a number of challenges, most notably the need to publicise enough success stories and create support structures. Distribution is also an issue in Nigeria.
“It remains very difficult to scale any commercial activity in Nigeria. A large part of this is a lack of knowhow in marketing and distribution,” Bassir said.
“The larger part of it is bad infrastructure. Like a lot of developing countries, Nigeria is much constrained by its infrastructure. But with the Nigerian growth story and with political will being brought to bear against infrastructure, this particular issue will continuously recede.”