Innovation Hubs in Sub-Saharan Africa

This third stage of the project centres on the specialised services being nurtured in Sub-Saharan Africa’s innovation hubs. Innovation hubs have been variously termed ‘tech hubs’, ‘business incubators’, ‘collaboration spaces’, and ‘innovation labs.’ They are locations in which programmers, developers, service providers, funders, and the public sector come together (usually in a space with large shared desk spaces and internet connections) to develop ideas.

There are a growing number of innovative clusters in Sub-Saharan Africa that focus on providing bespoke and relatively high-end software and ICT services. Because many of these clusters are based around innovation hubs (there are currently over fifty in Sub-Saharan Africa), we plan to use those locations as a starting point to ask questions about the role that changing connectivities play in processes of innovation, generativity, and wealth creation in the region’s creative service sector.

This stage will use information and insights gathered during the first year of the project, and will use surveys, interviews and discourse analysis to investigate how and where these new innovation hubs are taking root, what factors explain these geographies and the success and failure of hubs, and who ultimately benefits from them. We hope to find out whether Sub-Saharan Africa’s innovation hubs play an important role in the development of the region’s knowledge economies, and whether these hubs are fostering a move away from bottom of the pyramid work, such as microwork, and into higher value-added processes such as software development and design.

We will begin by looking at the ways that innovation hubs are presented by governments, the media, the third sector, and the organisation themselves before conducting surveys and interviews with hub managers, users, and participants. We will also focus on firms in those same cities that are not associated with innovation hubs.

In both cases, we will ask questions to investigate whether new knowledge work practices in the creative service sector taking root in Sub-Saharan Africa offer a significant departure from previous opportunities that have been available. What kinds of workers find employment in these sorts of jobs? Are participants able to capture a significant amount of either educational or financial value from their labour, or are we simply seeing new forms of exploitation now made possible by efficient communication technologies? In order to address these issues, worker surveys and interviews will focus primarily on quality of life issues (i.e. differences between their current knowledge-based work and previous jobs, opportunities for learning, satisfaction, perceived issues and worries, etc.), thus allowing us to better understand who ultimately benefits from the spread of knowledge work in Sub-Saharan Africa.

This work package will ultimately allow us to better understand potential differences that new types of ‘high end’ knowledge work are making in Sub-Saharan Africa; where this type of work is happening, who is involved, what factors affect success and failure, who benefits from these new practices, and how observed changes differ from expected ones. Crucially, it will also allow us to understand how important proximity and clustering are for the growth of the region’s knowledge economy, even in an age of supposed friction-free communication.

About Mark Graham

Mark Graham is the Professor of Internet Geography at the OII, a Faculty Fellow at the Alan Turing Institute, a Research Fellow at Green Templeton College, and an Associate in the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment. He leads a range of research projects spanning topics between digital labour, the gig economy, internet geographies, and ICTs and development.