Incubation labs give African engineers space to innovate

In honor of Global Entrepreneurship Week, Anna Lemberger looks into a phenomenon taking place all over Africa: innovation labs.

What do you get when you give an engineer chicken wire and plywood? Well, if you’re in the University of Nairobi’s FabLab, a program inspired by a similar lab at MIT, you might see one of the engineers turn these items into a low-tech Wi-Fi amplifier. This project might sound a little strange, but FabLab gives these university engineers the much-needed creative space to brainstorm, innovate and collaborate on technologies both big and small.

FabLab, or “fabrication lab,” is part of a wave of incubation labs popping up all over Africa. These labs give entrepreneurs access resources, training and space. Aimed at talented entrepreneurs working to advance both high- and low-tech ideas, including software for computers and mobile devices, the labs provide both business and development benefits. As a result, African engineers and developers are able to receive support throughout the various stages of the invention process, from prototype creation to business expansion, and stay on top of emerging technologies to help solve development issues.

Other African incubation centers and consortiums include NaiLab, iHub and Strathmore University’s iLabAfrica. The World Bank and Nokia also recently partnered to open mLab, a center focused more specifically on mobile technology. Hoping to encourage further entrepreneurial activity in the region, Nairobi’s mLab East Africa has three main pillars of support: training and research, community, and incubation and application testing.

iLabAfrica at Strathmore University in Nairobi helps young innovators develop technologies that support the Millennium Development Goals. iLab offers important training programs like their mobile boot camp, a crash-course on topics like app development and telecoms.

At iHub, open innovation is the name of the game. Members have access to a free and fast Internet connection. Simple offerings like space and wi-fi have led to inventions like Nikohapa, a mobile loyalty card app that allows businesses to track their customers’ locations and buying habits.

NaiLab is another incubation lab in Kenya that helps aspiring entrepreneurs turn their ideas into viable businesses. Innovators accepted into the program receive expert business support and space to grow their ideas.

We’re happy to see that entrepreneurs, innovators and engineers are collaborating on projects in Africa. With technology rapidly expanding on the continent over the next few years, these incubation labs will have a more important role to play than ever before, providing a reliable, helpful and simple way for local African entrepreneurs to tap into this growing market.

Photo credit: Jerry Riley/ Generation Kenya