Innovation hub success goes beyond infrastructure and learning

Tuesday January 19 2016

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Kenya has seen the idea of innovation hubs mature in the recent past, first in Nairobi and then further out into the counties.

Nairobi’s tech scene is crowded, although iHub, iLab, NaiLab, and c4DLab quickly come to mind. Borrowing from these innovation hubs, Swahilibox in Mombasa, Lakehub in Kisumu and mtHub in Bungoma have also emerged.

Even as we cut and paste what is happening in Nairobi onto other regions, we may need to ask whether Nairobi’s hubs have delivered on their promise.

What exactly is the promise or value proposition of an innovation or technology hub? The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, in its concept note on innovation hubs, identifies three key roles for innovation hubs.

Their first role is to provide infrastructure with which creative minds or innovators can work, learn and collaborate with each other.

The second is to provide incubation space for start-ups to mature in preparation for roll-out into the commercial environment.

Thirdly, hubs provide opportunities for venture capitalist to meet innovators and strike the investment deals needed to move ideas into commercially viable products.


These three roles or objectives can form the basic yardstick for evaluating the success or otherwise of our innovation hubs.

To be fair, most of Nairobi’s hubs have been highly successful on the first two counts.  They have provided space for innovators to conceptualise and play with their ideas while providing incubation opportunities for maturing these ideas.

Even if they provide opportunities for venture capitalists and innovators to meet, the hubs score poorly on the count of effectively graduating these ideas into sustainable, viable commercial enterprises.  

As an example, of these few innovations that were commercially viable  in 2010, a good number did not live long enough to see their fifth birthday – often folding up much earlier for various reasons. The fate of others will be useful to review after a few years.

In other words, sustainability as well as scalability of innovation, which really are the objective of innovation hubs, remain a challenge for the enterprises that emerge from them.

National and county governments can only declare success if these innovation hubs successfully engage youth in order to positively transform their socio-economic circumstances.