Framings of an Innovation Hot-zone in the GBA (Part Two)

May 7, 2021

Outcome of the KMC Challenge. The companies based in the Disruptive Lab are Outboost and Gisqo

The first part of this blog explored the innovation landscape within the Greater Banjul Area (GBA) and the possibility of structing it into a more enabling environment to foster greater success for the actors within that structure. This concluding second part explores the steps towards potentially realizing the transformation of that hot-zone into a cluster.

Several arguments could be made in favor of the innovation spaces springing up around the GBA (part 1), but there aren’t quite as many counter arguments as to the impact they have had in our communities – whether realized or anticipated. In the wider local context, they are simply not understood, and perhaps it is all due to the novelty of their as a phenomenon. After a 2-3 year opportunity to observe these entities, their role, at least in the short term, can be critiqued somewhat more comprehensively, thus forming a basis to debate their necessity in our local economy in the first place.

The introduction of the technology labs and spaces sought to disrupt the internet industry by creating new internet access points that would rival the dominant market capture enjoyed by the popular cyber ‘internet’ cafes. However, despite the edge they should have enjoyed, mobile data and smartphones, have achieved that disruption at an unprecedented rate unmatched by these new spaces.

Besides the ‘newness’ of this all, and the obvious role they play by providing access to resources such as reliable internet and electricity, they are also accessible to entrepreneurs at very flexible rates – even comparable to rates at cyber cafes. Yet despite the incentives, surprisingly none of the four existing creative spaces is operating at more than 40 percent capacity. With great flexibility and healthy competition in the rates offered for access to the spaces, in some cases even catering for hourly use, the lack of usage and inflow of members needed to sustain the spaces is limiting their effectiveness.

Managers of these spaces need to also explore other untapped resources to enhance their roles in the wider ecosystem and seize the gains provided by the diminishing reliance of cyber cafes. By looking inward, the program and events pillar introduced in part one, can easily be explored to further incentivize entrepreneurs. Competition, challenges, programs, and networking event opportunities in particular need to become more available and accessible. This will also facilitate opportunities to access seed funding to support start-ups and other early-stage venture.

Part one of this blog series, revealed that in at least one of the technology labs and creative spaces, two groups within its membership pool were registered there as a result of an external competition i.e. the KMC Innovation Challenge. A similar percentage constitutes returnee-run startups or scale-ups, and the outstanding 20 percent of members categorize local bootstrapped financed ventures. With various reasons why this second group chose that space, greater availability to events and programs will only improve their experience and foster innovation capabilities. Collectively, this quality element must be prioritized above expanding the lab’s member base.

Notably, the number of talent one can target within the Kanifing Municipal Council (KMC) is limited. Creative individuals residing in other regions must be exposure to these spaces through awareness creation. Media channels and platforms are a great and cost-effective way to achieve this. Tapping into academic settings such as the University of The Gambia (UTG) can spark greater interest in these spaces and facilitate access to a diverse and representative student body among other actors within that network. For instance, creating a role for academics will diversify the role of actors with the ecosystem e.g. by facilitate a role for researchers in the hot-zone to contribute to knowledge generation and capture, in these spaces.

The governance structures that be, must also use policymaking as a tool to attract talent to The Gambia and the GBA innovation hot-zone in particular. Essentially, if the quality is improved, the quantity in numbers will be easier to attract. The profile of The Gambia offers a lot to not just its immediate regional ECOWAS neighbors, but the whole of Africa, especially with the ratification of the African Continent Free Trade Agreement ( AfCFTA). The country has the ingredients to attract top talent to establish their businesses here, not because there isn’t enough home-grown talent to occupy the spaces, but simply because the AfCFTA presents wider economic and commercial opportunity that will help further nurture the budding entrepreneurship ecosystem.

International competitions, challenges, programs, and events like Seedstars World are accessible to local entrepreneurs seeking to develop their ideas and businesses. Together with local equivalents like the KMC Innovation Challenge, these events must increase in frequency but with a new twist. The new technology labs and spaces have to serve the purpose of venue – something that has never been done before. Programs also need to cater to the rural residents of the country and the managers of these spaces have to find ways to penetrate this rural urban divide. Furthermore, they must connect to regional structures and networks like the AfriLabs network to tap into international opportunities.

Recently, through The Gambia Ministry of Information and Communication Infrastructure (MOICI) the national government embarked on conducting a feasibility study to establish an innovation lab at the national university. Besides the UTG, other tertiary institutions should also be tapped into as potential new sources of talent. The entrant of the public sector through this planned lab, would complete the blueprint of an innovation cluster that can easily be replicated in another region of the country at other popular cities such as Farafenni and Basse in the Upper River Region.

In the meantime, AccLabGM will build on the television advert it created for the four technology labs and spaces in the country by intervening with its own catalog of competitions, challenges, programs and events. This builds on the 3-day hackathon and collective intelligence workshops we hosted in 2020, among other events such as collective intelligence and sense-making workshops.

In a later piece, AccLabGM will explore the implications of the establishment of UTG’s new lab in our local context. Given an existing MOU between UNDP and the center of learning, AccLabGM will be keenly following along the whole process.

And you can too with #AccLabGM.


Exterior and interior images of a typical internet cafe within the GBA