As pan-African tech hub network AfriLabs kicks off its annual gathering in Accra, Ghana, the role of innovation spaces is under the spotlight this week. In this guest post, Nairobi Garage director Hannah Clifford says co-working spaces can be the keystone of Africa’s startup ecosystem if they tailor their offerings in the right way.
Co-working spaces need to provide more than just office space – they have a key role in connecting the dots within the entrepreneurship ecosystem.
As the innovation ecosystem in Nairobi – Africa’s Silicon Savannah – grows, each of us needs to take a step back and consider our role within the community. At Nairobi Garage we may well be the largest co-working space in the city, but is offering office infrastructure, and an inviting networking space, enough?
The answer is no: we need to add more value.
If Kenya’s entrepreneurship ecosystem is to continue to show itself capable of innovating and creating for the world, all of us active in the sector need to increase the value we offer, and find ways of facilitating the ecosystem’s growth.
Co-working spaces have a unique role within the ecosystem. As easily identifiable and accessible places for ecosystem players to congregate, we have the power to connect the dots – the different players – to unlock maximum value for all.
We can be the keystone of the ecosystem – if we examine our offerings, and ensure we work to answer the needs of those we serve.
This is a key area in which co-working spaces can have a crucial impact: making the business environment more transparent – and easier to navigate – for entrepreneurs. We can ensure entrepreneurs have access to the information they critically need, in order to prioritise their spending and develop solid strategies.
Too many startups avoid seeking out professional support – such as accounting help, or legal services – for too long, due to a lack of information or fear of being burned.
Of course, in the early, bootstrapped, days, the focus is all on working lean – which is one of the founding principles of the co-working revolution. We help entrepreneurs manage their cash-flow and save money.
But co-working spaces should also help entrepreneurs connect with relevant services: we make it easy for startups to network with businesses at a similar stage, and develop mutually- beneficial partnerships and service exchanges. We make free events accessible, for entrepreneurs to develop their knowledge and skills.
It is surprising how many later stage startups – which have traction in the market, and may have raised funds – remain reluctant to engage with other companies and experts. Founders can get obsessed with doing everything themselves, as cheaply as possible. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes, being cheap can prove expensive in the long-run.
Startups alone are not to blame for this breakdown in relations. Service providers are often bad at explaining in simple terms the value they offer, and can fail to reliably outline the pricing of their services. Governments are also not doing enough to provide comprehensive information portals and free business tools and support for MSMEs.
As a result, many entrepreneurs have had negative experiences – spending hours engaging with completely the wrong provider for their needs; or facing a huge legal bill when all they wanted was an answer to a one-off question. I’ve been there; I know how frustrating it is to pay for services that haven’t solved my issue.
Due to this plague of misinformation and mistrust, entrepreneurs often divert their resources to other priorities, failing to recognise that they are neglecting important tasks, such as keeping proper company accounts, or ensuring employees have all the necessary legal documentation.
Little do some entrepreneurs realise how badly they might be damaging their company by not making use of professional business services at the right time.
So, I believe it is our job – as entrepreneurship hubs – to help bridge the gap. We as co-working spaces must seek out quality service providers and partners, work with them to package their services and value proposition in a transparent fashion, and be on hand to help entrepreneurs identify the tools or services they need to draw upon to grow their businesses.
The challenge urgently facing us, is to find sustainable and efficient ways to build partnerships our members can truly benefit from. In this way, co-working spaces can really support entrepreneurs, and help accelerate the successes growing out of Kenya, and the African continent.
Over the coming weeks, we at Nairobi Garage will be rolling out a range of exciting new services for local entrepreneurs, as we seek to maximise the value we add to the ecosystem.