The Africa-Europe Innovation Partnership aims at connecting high-quality incubators and accelerators across Africa and Europe through dialogue, partnership and technology transfer. Three gathering events already took place and 18 partnerships were concluded so far. Smart Lab in Tanzania and Technoport based in Luxembourg are among them : Sharron Nsule, the Business Operations Support at Smart Lab in Tanzania and Catherine Delevoye, respectively and the Project Manager at Technoport explain to us the importance of collaboration through the Coronavirus Crisis.
Samir Abdelkrim : What did you learn during this program?
Sharon Nsule : When I first heard of this network, I thought it was a very interesting thing for us African Tech hubs to join because I personally, there’s a lot of exposure that has been presented to us through the network, and I feel it has broaden my mind : it’s bringing so many thing that I didn’t know, so many cultures, people from other countries, getting to understand hat are they doing on their side in term of technology, of innovation. So it’s more like opening and getting out of your bubble and becoming open to opportunity. The ability to ask yourself what you want to do, what you want to accomplish. To be in that partnership has helped a lot as we were starting our lab, and the cooperation : we always think we can do things on our own but others have many things to bring. It’s a habit we developed already, in our own country, we do twice a year an “ecosystem tour”, where we visit other hubs of the country. To see what our fellows are doing and how we can join forces and brainstorm on project that we can do together, apply together as a consortium for funds… Building partnership, collaborate on events.. We always share what we are doing with other hubs, so a partnership with hubs outside of the country is all the much important to us, to LEARN from what other have been doing, the challenges that they have overcome, to exchange. Collaboration is a big part when it comes to setting goals.
Catherine Delevoye : I share Sharon’s views : not only I got to learn about the African ecosystem because each country is different, but you also get to know your peers : what services do they offer and how you could cooperate with them according to what they offer that could be of interest for both. So it can beneficiate to your own ecosystem. So it’s helping a lot.
Samir Abdelkrim : Catherine, you are managing a tech Hub in Luxembourg, would you say that you are confronted with the same problem as your African counterparts?
Catherine Delevoye : yes, the context is not the same but the goals are very similar ; we are all trying to leverage our ecosystem, help new entrepreneurs and encourage entrepreneurship, help companies scale up and potentially make them go at growth stage and at international level. So yes the goals are exactly the same and the basic question is the same for us all : how can I leverage my ecosystem? How can I improve things and bring some capacity to the people and empower them so they can be more innovative and bring their innovation to the market.
Samir Abdelkrim : What about you Sharon, have you identified some opportunities to work and exchange with your European counterparts?
Sharon Nsule : Oh yes, We identified a lot, it was very interesting to know that we have similar things that we’re working on and that we have common ground for partnership. To meet and to see Tech Hubs from other countries and to find that you have so much in common. Also with Technopark, with so many others. It’s a very nice feeling to see that what you want to accomplish and the goals you have, others want to achieve the same. So it’s a ground where we can found partnership and strengthen them.
Samir Abdelkrim : Your 2 Tech Hubs have established a partnership: could you describe what is inside and what you agreed to work on?
Catherine Delevoye : The similarities between our two organizations were big and large, because Sharon is working with startups and also scale-ups, and investors. So She has this capacities to connect people in her network to big companies and investors and they have this activity twice a year to meet the ecosystem and discuss, and we do exactly the same in Luxemburg. So our partnership is to bring those two national network together so our companies can reach out to her investors and so on, so that every company willing to expand over border can do so with the relevant stakeholders. It’s a must have : if you want to enter a market and you know nothing about it, you need to have a local stakeholders, you need to have access to the people and I can already see in her network people that can be useful for my companies.
Sharon Nsule : It’s true we had this realization when we discovered we were doing exactly the same initiatives and with Covid-19, it’s nice to still have opportunities of partnerships.
Samir Abdelkrim : How is the COVID-19 affecting your partnership?
Catherine Delevoye : Definitely, it has been very bad: the activities we had in mind were often related to gathering and connecting people, and if you have to do all this virtually, it’s difficult. If you want to enter a partnership and to do this things on the ground, you need to go on the ground and know what the other is doing, and if you cannot go directly on the ground, at least sit together face to face and discuss for a long time. I think in the world of innovation, you really need this contact.
Samir Abdelkrim : On the other hand, with digitalisation, we can work remotely and continue working from home: do you think this new kind of work is going to continue after the pandemics and change durably the way Tech Hubs are working?
Catherine Delevoye : what will change and what already has changes before the pandemics is that physical infrastructure is less important than in the past, startups are less and less calling us to rent a room, and less calling us for coaching and mentoring. this possibility to have services. So the virus is not having a big impact. It’s true that if you’re doing a work, you can do it from Spain, from France etc. But meeting from time to time, once a month, twice a year. What is wrong with the current situation is this idea that you can have virtual meeting in the same way you were doing physical meetings in the past. For me I can see a real difference : networking is very much impacted : you can do paper work from home, but people need physical contact. Also, talking about co-creation and open innovation: it’s a thing you cannot do if you do this alone in your room without interaction with people.
Sharon Nsule : despite Covid-19, I feel that the technology is moving on and that it was a moving call for many companies that had not moved on, but for us Tech hubs it’s a question of encouraging the companies we work with us to do so and to move on and to continue even after Covid-19. It’s a call to move on because for now there’s no other option, we all have to up our game in technology and pursue our work online. Even I agree with Catherine that physical interaction is needed from time to time. But still, all we are improving right now is to be pursue after Covid-19.
Samir Abdelkrim : Are you working right now to make some evolutions to your business model and to survive to the pandemics as a Tech Hubs?
Catherine Delevoye : yes, we changed our business model, because it was very much linked to people coming to the incubator (invoice for using meeting rooms) so we have to think of a way to monetize more mentoring and so on. But again it’s not new, we had already realized before the virus that we needed to go out of the physical space model.
Sharon Nsule : We are not an incubator, so we don’t have startups in our space, it’s just about projects. Our BM is more about program that we do and coaching that we do. We have our mother company that is enabling us to do the most of our activities as an innovation lab: we tend to have our clients and customers from them.
Samir Abdelkrim : Regarding the Tech ecosystem in Africa that is growing very fast, what will be the impact of the pandemics? How do you see the growth of the Tech ecosystem in Africa in the next two years?
Sharon: I think it will continue to growth, because people have invested a lot and you can see people switching their model. People are keeping up with the technology trends, looking for opportunities and adapting.
Catherine Delevoye : regarding the European Tech ecosystem, I also think it will keep moving forward because the model is all about adapting and being agile. We’ve seen most of our companies finding new solutions and even launching new products for the crisis. I fear the legal framework and the environment is the most problematic, because they are components that companies are not controlling, and that depends on the governments: borders opening and so on. It restricts a lot what you can do and cannot.
Samir Abdelkrim : what are the next steps for both of you in your MoU, what have you agreed to do next to maintain the MoU despite the Covid-19.
Sharon Nsule : what we can take of right now is the mentorship: staff to be mentoring our personnel during the pandemics it’s a very good time right now. I was supposed to send the areas where our startups are working on to see who can fit where in her ecosystems and where we can start.
Catherine Delevoye : Exactly. The crisis is also a good time to take time to discuss with your ecosystem: I took the time to call each of my startups to see where they were and what they were working on and I could discover that many of them were much more interested in Africa than I thought and some people are already candidate for the partnership.
Samir Abdelkrim : what are your wishes for the partnership?
Catherine Delevoye : the more time we have to talk to each other inside the network, the better it is, so we should continue to exchange within short times.
Sharon Nsule : more time is needed because it take time to understand others’ project, to listen to them and so on, so yes more time for this partnership.
Catherine Delevoye : It’s true time is essential, even if it’s a constraint with the crisis and that exchanges are too limited.
Samir ABDELKRIM | Entrepreneur - Author - Consultant
Founder, StartupBRICS & EMERGING valley
Book Author of "Startup Lions, at the Heart of the African Tech"
Tech reporter Writer @ Le Point | Ex- Le Monde, Huffington Post, Les Echos