An excerpt on the state of technology incubators from the Nairobi-based business innovator iHub reads:
…Unfortunately, little inquiry has been done to understand the various factors which make up these ICT Hubs and their sustainability… There has been little assessment of how African Hubs/Labs have been of significance to the different categories of members in the space. iHub Research is the journey to understand and fill this breadth of information.
Over the past few years, there has been tremendous and seemingly sudden growth of “business innovators”, “technology accelerators”, and “collaboration spaces” across East Africa (and to a lesser extent, the whole continent). The image below from mHealthAfrica is a particularly effective and aesthetically pleasing info-graphic on the current state of affairs in this burgeoning new “industry”
But while these incubators for innovation may be becoming relatively commonplace, what has been far less present is any form of evaluating the relative faults and merits of these new organizations. Finding a single metric for the “success” of these organizations can be difficult. Activspaces, a Cameroonian incubator lists as a part of its mission that it is:
…simultaneously, a place to work, a place to meet, a place to call one’s own and interact with interesting and inspiring people in spurring innovation and entrepreneurship…
These are vague and diverse aspirations that lack meaningful metrics.
That doesn’t mean they goals aren’t worthwhile, creating the appropriate environment to incubate good ideas and talented individuals will likely be critical to making the most of the surge of young, talented individuals with a particular interest in the ICT space.
iHub’s current effort to investigate the impact of these newly established labs deserve serious praise, the fact that it is difficult to measure something is often an indicator that measuring it is that much more important.
In the absence of meaningful metrics it is too easy to value an organization or initiative based on impressive rhetoric and good intentions. Though the effort should be lauded, if the first report from the iHub Research team on the structure and performance of Uganda’s Hive Co-Lab is any indication, there is plenty of room for improving the process.
Rather than simply noting the membership structure, source of income, and start-up companies that have gotten their head-start at a particular lab, impact evaluations should try to quantify the extent to which these labs influence surrounding institutions by capturing increases in interest and funding for ICT-initiatives at nearby universities, they should try to acquire and publish statistics on the growth and revenues of innovation hub graduates and they should conduct and summarize qualitative surveys of user experiences and community reception to the lab.
Of the 22 hubs and labs featured in mHealthAfrica’s profile of the industry landscape, 12 were founded in 2010, 9 in 2011 and 1 in 2012. As these organizations move from vision to implementation, more rigorous evaluation and a stronger effort to compare their relative efficacy will bring additional legitimacy and funding to the best organizations. Transparent coverage of the emerging sub-field will require every hub to continually raise the bar to make sure it seems competitive within the field which should increase the total impact each organization can make on its target community.