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Ghana is a platform for innovators looking to deploy in West Africa, with Accra being one of the continent’s most desired capitals. Entrepreneurs appreciate its quiet ways, relatively affordable housing, good connectivity, and regular power. Why not set up shop in Accra and deploy a sales team in Lagos or elsewhere? With regular business flights between capitals, entrepreneurs are only an hour’s flight away.
Interestingly enough, Accra has not seen the federation of hubs as witnessed in Nairobi. Despite Busy Internet, possibly the first well-documented IT business centre to be set up on the continent, there have been few models that have followed. Of course, MEST remains a leading example for the country and the region, but where are the open co-working spaces for the community at large? This past year many new initiatives have been put into the works and we are now seeing the first results.
One of the newest programmes now online is iSpace, Accra’s newest tech hub. iSpace is a space for developers, innovators, entrepreneurs and technology lovers to come together in a shared facility and work together. Local innovators will get support developing their skills and ideas, they can participate in various community-led programmes, and connect with mentors and investors when the time is right. If anything, new innovations, products and businesses will emerge as a result. We reached out to iSpace co-founder Kwesi Eyison to find out more.
VC4A: Can you tell us how this initiative came together?
Kwesi Eyison: In 2011, my business partner and I (who at the time was introduced to me via a third-party) hosted the very first mobile apps’ competition in Ghana. By this I mean the first competition to have had all the various developers present their apps in public. Throughout the day the same issues were identified by the participants i.e. developers and creative entrepreneurs lacking resources, working space and funding. So we decided to try to see what might be done from a purely passionate standpoint, and 2013 saw the launch of the iSpace Foundation.
VC4A: How did you find organizational support and why do these organisations back the effort?
KE: It was very difficult to find local support because most of these organisations didn’t or don’t have the development of the local tech ecosystem at heart. They don’t see the ROI in such projects. We were fortunate because our main sponsor for the apps events was Indigo Trust, an organisation already supporting various hubs across Africa. We then got into touch with Google who also showed interest, and we managed to get ATTI on board. Being a social enterprise hub helped getting funders such as Indigo Trust and ATTI interested. We plan to work on a lot of tech for social good initiatives such as M4E (Mobile for Education) and TechNeedsGirls (increasing the level of woman in tech). Google are already supporting such entrepreneurial initiatives across the globe, and since they already had an office in Ghana, it was an easier fit.
VC4A: What are your first activities you plan to launch and as you work to mobilise the community?
KE: One of our first activities was working on a roundtable meeting with various tech ecosystem stakeholders. We do not want to reinvent the wheel, but rather bring the missing pieces of the puzzle together. We also worked on the TechNeedGirls initiative, looking at proactive ways of engaging women into taking up an interest in technology. We are also working with NGOs to better understand their technological needs.
VC4A: Many hubs have a specialisation. Do you seek to develop a specific area of expertise?
KE: In the long-term we will focus on developing technological solutions to everyday social issues. But in the short-term we are focusing on providing business startups and entrepreneurs a space with good internet connectivity, resources, connections and training needed to develop promising products or services. iSpace is currently the only innovation hub where tech stakeholders and creative industries stakeholders can meet and exchange ideas.
VC4A: Can you highlight where the Accra startup scene is today?
KE: The startup scene in Accra is positive and vibrant. Accra has gone from having one incubator to having about 6 in less than 5 years. When you take the population and the education system into consideration, this is quite remarkable. Some of the tech hubs fostering the growth of the startup ecosystem include:
– MEST, the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology incubator provides training, investment and mentoring for aspiring Ghanaian software entrepreneurs with the goal of creating globally successful companies that will inspire wealth and jobs locally in Africa. It was established in 2008.
– Mobile Web Ghana is a non-profit organisation that was created to marry those two dreams, helping passionate people become mobile-technology entrepreneurs, by teaching them to create applications accessible via mobile phones (whether via mobile websites, apps, SMS, or voice).
– The Ghana-India Kofi Annan Centre of Excellence in ICT (AITI-KACE), Ghana’s first Advanced Information Technology Institute, works to stimulate the growth of the ICT Sector in ECOWAS.
– Ashesi University is a coeducational institution whose goal is to educate African leaders of exceptional integrity and professional ability. By raising the bar for higher education in Ghana, we aim to make a significant contribution towards a renaissance in Africa.
– Hub Accra is a co-working space located in Osu, Accra, “one of the most dynamic venues in Accra for a startup to find their feet”. Many talented Ghanaians are choosing Hub Accra as their destination of choice.
VC4A: How does iSpace complement what already exists? How is it different?
KE: Hubs are the new thing in Ghana and every day we hear about a new hub that is about to launch or has launched already. We welcome that because they all contribute to the growth of the tech ecosystem here. On the basic level, all the hubs have a similar business model in that we provide a space for tech startups, however, the differences are in our approach. Hubs such as MEST, Kumasi Tech Hub, and HubSpace, are run by institutions. They are not serving the larger community in the way that iSpace is designed to do. iSpace provides a space/services for developers who ironically attend/use these various hubs making iSpace the answer to the “now what?” question that most of these startups face once they graduate from MEST or their schools. iSpace aims to provide resources, connection and training to an entrepreneur with a well thought-out solution. Our USP is also the fact that our members/startups give up to 20% of their time and resources working on iSpace projects which are mostly aimed at solving social issues such as education, health and governance.
VC4A: What are some examples of Accra success stories?
KE: A couple of notable projects include:
1. Alloysius Attah with FarmerLine: providing information access and communication pathways for smallholder farmers in the agriculture sector.
2. Nehemiah Attigs with Hatua Solutions: who provide business enterprise solutions to both public and private sector industries.
3. Derek Jason Bossman with AdsBrook: an online and mobile advertising platform targeted at African and emerging markets.
4. Regina Agyare with Soronko Solutions: working with technology for social change.
There are many startups doing wonderful work and over the coming months iSpace will launch an initiative to highlight their progress.
VC4A: What do you see as the key challenges moving forward?
KE: iSpace is not immune to similar challenges that most business startups face globally i.e. funding, resources, government regulations, etc. Being based in Ghana increases the challenges particularly due to the lack of a middle class system that can support startups by purchasing their products or services. Other challenges are mainly communication and marketing-related issues. Tech startups don’t get the media coverage that the traditional businesses tend to get. Getting editors to recognize what is happening and offer coverage is a challenge.
VC4A: Do you have a final message you would like to share with entrepreneurs and investors?
KE: My message to the entrepreneurs is to view startups in three stages: stage one — the idea, stage two — implementation and stage three — growth. To the investors: please be realistic and patient. Africa is not structured like the West or other developed economies. Just know that where there is a challenge, there also lies an opportunity.