Black Entrepreneurs Build Bridge With Africa’s Thriving Tech Hubs

African-American social innovators toured technology spaces in four African countries.

Posted: 04/03/2014 09:06 AM EDT

In Lagos, Nigeria, Co-Creation Hub co-founder Femi Longe (right) speaks with guests about the center. (Photo: Courtesy of Brandspan)

When Amanda Spann received the opportunity to visit the thriving technology hubs in Africa’s most populous cities, she brought along other curious minds to make the excursion more meaningful.

A group of 15 professionals and one student, mostly women, was formed. From Feb. 1 to Feb. 15, the travelers visited Ghana, South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria. Sponsored by Arik Air, the trip promoted global entrepreneurship and women’s empowerment and tightened bonds between African-American and African innovators.

“I said why don’t we get together as many tech founders, social innovators and young movers and shakers in the social impact space as possible?” Spann, 27, told BET.com. She is the former CMO of Blerdology, a social enterprise supporting the Black tech community. Currently, she is a specialist at IBM.

During their visit, the group saw up close how entrepreneurship is growing as a pathway of economic empowerment in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the region, youth unemployment is rising. But 76 percent of adults, ages 18 to 64, view entrepreneurship as a good career choice, the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor reported in 2012.

The first leg of the tour was Accra, Ghana, where the participants sat with the Queen Mothers of Ghana. They also made a stop at HUB Accra, a collaborative workspace that offers business development workshops. Co-Creation Hub in Lagos, Nigeria, Impact Hub of Johannesburg, South Africa, Capetown Garage, and iHub in Nairobi, Kenya, were among several destinations for the group.

Erika Norwood, 32, a participant, said a business pitch festival at HUB Accra was one of the most inspiring moments. She is the executive director of IDEX Accelerator, a global fellowship program.

“I’ve heard a lot of different pitches in person and on paper, but I think that there was a passion that came across in this pitch fest with these different entrepreneurs,” Norwood told BET.com. She kept in touch with one pitch participant, Dziedzorm “JayJay” Segbefia of Braveheart Expeditions, an eco-tourism business.

“I think it was one of the big moments for me, because I really get excited about entrepreneurship and seeing people fulfill their passion,” Norwood said.

Janelle Jolley, 27, another traveler on the tour, is building a connection with the owner of MadeinAfrica.net, which she described as “Etsy for African artists.”

“I was able to connect him with someone who throws the Black Arts Festival in Atlanta,” she told BET.com. Jolley, the founder of Sidewalk District, which caters to local independent retailers, was also impressed by a startup named BRCK of Nairobi.

“They developed a device that is both a charger and streams Wi-Fi for wireless devices and that’s huge and needed everywhere because the infrastructure isn’t there,” she said. The company guarantees better connectivity in a region with “frequent blackouts” and “spotty Internet hookups.”

Besides lack of Internet access, data shows there exist other roadblocks that potential and current business owners face in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“There is not a shortage of talent there, but I definitely think there is a global misalignment of talent,” Spann said. “So a lot of places, they may not have access to a certain level of education or a certain skill set they may need to advance their communities.”

In South Africa, there is an inadequate educated workforce and inefficient government bureaucracy. In Ghana, the issue is access to financing, corruption and tax rates. In Nigeria, access to finance, corruption and inadequate supply of infrastructure are issues, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. Data wasn’t available for Kenya.

Jolley also raised the point that the profile of the technology sector in Africa closely reflects that of the United States. “For the most part it is overwhelming male—Black or white—and overwhelmingly young, but that’s the case everywhere in the world,” she said.

Jolley also believes the inclusion of women in the tech space will be its biggest growth opportunity. “There’s only one way to go as far as representation and that’s up.”

Lesley Donna Williams, the founder and managing director of Impact Hub Johannesburg, is a shining example of a female leader in Africa’s technology space.

“She gave me great insight in the foreign investments across Africa and warned of a repeat in history— the second scramble for the African continent,” attendee Jamela Peterson said. “Therefore, there is an absolute necessity to empower the people of Africa.”

Spann says the next technology tour is already in the works.

“We want to provide opportunities for people who have a vested interest in increasing the communication, ties and social and economic growth between the U.S. and the African continent,” she said. “We really want to grow those Trans-Atlantic ties and build a bridge to more communication.”

Follow Natelege Whaley on Twitter: @Natelege.

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