SISTEM one-on-one from Chicago, Illinois with Ms. Tayo Akinyemi, Executive Director of AfriLabs, a pan-African network of 40 technology innovation hubs across 20 African countries.

Who We Are
Why Technology
Why the US & Why Africa

SISTEM one-on-one from Chicago, Illinois with Ms. Tayo Akinyemi, Executive Director of AfriLabs, a pan-African network of 40 technology innovation hubs across 20 African countries.

Tayo Akinyemi

Tayo is the Executive Director of AfriLabs, a pan-African network of tech innovation hubs. She is an entrepreneurship enthusiast who began her career at an NGO dedicated to advancing women in corporate business. Since then she has focused, with varying degrees of success, on understanding how businesses are built and sustained. From developing a community-inclusive business strategy for a greenfield sugarcane ethanol venture in Mozambique to executing the US entry strategy for a digital marketing company in Brazil, Tayo has also explored the social impact of commercial business. Tayo has an MBA from Cornell University, and a BA from Princeton University.
Q:  Please tell us about yourself, educational background and the career path you took.

Akinyemi: My name is Tayo Akinyemi, I am a first generation American, and my parents were born in Nigeria. I have a bachelor degree in Sociology from Princeton University and an MBA in Sustainable Global Enterprise from Cornell University. In terms of my career path, I often try to describe it in 3 buckets, to make it easier for people to understand. The first bucket is, after completing university, I was non-profit and development focused, I started at an NGO called Catalyst based in New York which was a research and advisory organization. I was in the marketing department and we conducted studies on professional of corporate sectors, part of the job was to raise awareness share knowledge. While working at this NGO, I had a little bit of a crisis in terms of what I wanted to do with my life personally and professionally. After some introspection, I decided to do some work in international development abroad, I had a fellowship from my university called Princeton in Africa to work for an NGO in Nigeria. It was my first time actually living in Nigeria; the work that the NGO did was training for leadership for political parties. I did that work for about 2 years, then I had another realization in the sense that my experience on the ground in Nigeria made it clear that democracy was a great enabler, however, a part of the struggle was for economic resources. Consequently, I decided to learn more about business and did a very short stint at a Nigerian company before I came back to the US− that would be bucket 2. Back in the US, I did short stints at two startups and a community development finance institution on the west side of Chicago. At that point, I realized that my transition would be smoother if I pursue a graduate degree in Sustainable Global Enterprise. I went to get a MBA at Cornell University in that field. For Bucket 3, post MBA, the focus was in consulting but also in entrepreneurship. So basically to recap: bucket 1 was non-profit in the US, bucket 2 was non-profit development in Africa and bucket 3 was consulting and entrepreneurship but with a recurring theme around Africa and entrepreneurship. After my MBA, I worked for a US consulting firm for a little bit, then worked for a private Academy of South Africa to help them launch their entrepreneurial leadership center, then worked back in the US with a research center associated with a top ten business school.  This was what I was doing before joining AfriLabs.

Q:   Tell us about AfriLabs: what is it, who founded it, who does it assist and what does it do?

Akinyemi: AfriLabs is a pan-African network of tech innovation composed of 40 tech hubs in 20 African countries. Basically, tech hubs are nexus points for individuals and organizations interested in innovation. AfriLabs was founded in 2011 by five gentlemen, who had co- founded iHub, Hive Colab, ActivSpaces, Nailab, and Banta Labs. The core purpose of AfriLabs is to provide a platform where different hubs can share knowledge and collaborate, the idea being when they get information from their fellow hubs they will all ascend learning curves faster and will be able to better serve their local tech communities. In terms of whom AfriLabs serves, their primary customers are hubs but obviously hubs in turn have primary customers like developers, startups, entrepreneurs and others that have interest in the area innovation.

Q:    Please tell us specifically about AfriLabs’s three strategic priorities and their respective goals:

Akinyemi: The first strategic priority is knowledge sharing and collaboration, the reason behind that is first of all we are a network. One of the purposes for a network is to provide a platform for members to share knowledge and collaborate. There are a couple levels on which this operates, the first being basic communication: It is important for members to know who their counterparts are, it is not always easy when you sit in your office to find out who else on the continent is doing similar work. Knowledge sharing is the next level, once you are connected, you should be able to learn from your peers. For example, if a hub is very good at establishing corporate partnership, members of the network could request assistance from that hub to improve their corporate partnership strategy. The last level  is the actual collaboration, once we know your other partners, and you build trust by sharing knowledge, then we want you to work on data platforms to learn how to work together on projects that mutually beneficial. We have done that twice and hope to continue doing it in the future. The first example was a project that we did with the support from infoDev to explore virtual incubation, there were 5 hubs involved.

The second strategic priority is the sustainability. Sustainability from 2 perspectives: first the capacity prospective is just the acknowledgment that ability is spread by teams that have multiple functions. It is quite challenging to manage the day-to-day aspects of the hub, so we think we are able to bolster their capacity generally but also more specifically and to look at longer-range problems, challenges or opportunities.

At the moment we are experimenting matching our hubs with MBA students you can assist them either remotely or in person with strategic projects that they need to do.

The second perspective of the sustainability is the financial aspect which is an acknowledgement that most have to take care of their funding and find sustainable revenue streams and business models. There is also an expectation that they carve out the time to do it. What we are doing is crowdsource community knowledge via our partnership with 2 other organizations IceHubs Global and Impact Hub. The impact of that is we are hosting our Hub-in- a-Box workshop on sustainability, where we will bring various practitioners that run their hubs to pick their brains to figure out what really works well and have this information shared with our hub community.

The last strategic priority is Community Building: the notion is that AfriLabs is going to be good in a handful of things and we will have a handful of core competencies. If we work with organizations that have different but complementary competencies, then we will have a bigger impact. So we try to create partnership with organizations who have a commitment of fostering African tech.

Q:     Can you please share a few words about AfriLabs Virtual Co-creation?

Akinyemi: As I mentioned earlier, with the support of the of the Rockefeller Foundation, AfriLabs has been exploring the possibility for digital job creation on the continent and this project as 3 parts. The actual grants had several parts: The first part on research on digital creation, Kenyan tech hub iHub specifically did the research on the digital job creation that was done by one of our member. The second part is the digital job challenge, which in turn as 2 components: the first is the digital job competition that we held at our annual meeting at the Global Innovation Gathereing at re:publica Berlin in person and the second component is the virtual co-creation.  During the whole day of activities, eleven hubs pitch in person, then nine were selected to move to the next phase where each of the nine hubs were ask the cerate business initiatives that had the potential for digital job creation. Each hub team was assigned a task related to an area of weakness or challenge of another hub (for example a Hub in Nigeria was assigned an assignment about a hub in Kenya and so on), and throughout the day they would interact virtually via internet. AfriLabs was not only able to monitor all the hubs (see their actual screens) at once in one big screen (each hub had their own little window) but we were also able to communicate with them directly. This is the actual co-creation process. At the end they all solutions to their challenges from different hubs and the winners of that challenge were basically awarded some fund to further develop their digital job creating start-ups.

Q:   What are the main challenges that AfriLabs currently face?

Akinyemi: Excellent question, there are many, but the top three go as follow (and not necessarily in order):  first, the financial resources, second, the human resources and third are challenges associated with running such a large network of hubs. In terms of financial challenges, generally when I talk to people, it seems that they have a general level of enthusiasm about a network of 40 hubs in 20 countries; however, since we are not a direct service organization it is a bit difficult to be funded in terms of value proposition, especially when one’s think of his or her investment in function to a return on investment that seems a little more far away in our case. The challenge for us is to figure out how to better articulate the value proposition in the way that makes sense to potential financial backers. Secondly, from a human resource perspective, I am the only staff member, you have the learn how to be crafty, but also the growth of the organization can be limited to what any one person can realistically do. The third challenge is to run the organization itself: if you ask any hub whether or not its hub executives value knowledge and collaboration, the answer would probably be yes, but there are challenges in terms of making partnerships meaningful. From my experience, when dealing with institutions that are resources strapped, if the collaboration does not have an immediate impact on their top priorities then it tends to fall back to the end of the queue. The challenge for AfriLabs is for us to assist them accomplish their top items on their to do list to so that they see the value of participating in the activities of the network.

ISTG Note: The following is a partial list of AfriLabs hubs:

ActivSpaces, AMN Coworking Space, BandwidthBarn (TheBarn), BongoHive, C4DLab, CIPMEN, Creation Hu, CTIC Dakar, EtriLabs, Habaka, Hive Colab, iceaddis, icecairo, iHub, iLab Liberia,  LabAfrica, iSpace, kLab, LakeHub, m:lab East Africa, Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST), mLab Southern Africa, NaiLab, Outbox, RLabs,The District, The Office, Wennovation Hub, and Woe Lab.


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