Challenges and opportunities for incubators in West Africa
The population boom in West African countries is bringing more and more young people into a labor market that cannot yet absorb them. Many of these young people are now turning to entrepreneurship as a source of employment. This, however, often takes the form of subsistence and informal entrepreneurship.
Unlike growth and innovative entrepreneurship, this form of entrepreneurship is not capable of generating sustainable jobs and therefore cannot act as an engine for economic development.
Innovative entrepreneurship is proven to be a determining factor of growth: it stimulates productivity, creates jobs and helps improve citizens’ quality of life. So-called ‘growth entrepreneurs’ are the drivers behind this innovation and they contribute to their countries’ economic and social development. As Joseph Schumpeter once said, ”innovation is the driving force of economic progress, and entrepreneurs are the agents of innovation.”
Nevertheless, whether innovating, capturing a market opportunity or simply trying to survive, entrepreneurship remains a difficult undertaking in West Africa. Access to bank financing is scarce, the legal and fiscal framework is often unsuited to the needs of startups and there is very little reliable market data. To overcome these difficulties and help entrepreneurs address these constraints, numerous entrepreneurship support structures are emerging throughout the sub-region. These can take various forms: incubators that accompany entrepreneurs early in the process, Fab Labs (fabrication laboratories) that allow innovators to develop a product, accelerators that accompany the scaling up of businesses, among others.
The common denominator between these structures is the personalized support they offer entrepreneurs, via a variety of services – provision of facilities, coaching, networking, access to financing –all of which serve as levers for innovation.
Startups need to be incubated like eggs: this is the primary meaning of the word ”incubator.”
To develop the potential of an innovative project, entrepreneurs needs to engage with an entrepreneurial ecosystem. The different actors in this ecosystem provide the key elements in the implementation of entrepreneurial projects: technical support, access to funding, training, advice, etc. The central role entrepreneurship support structures play in innovation development at this level makes them pillars of their respective ecosystems. Through the technical support they provide, entrepreneurship support structures allow entrepreneurs to develop their company in a way that best addresses the challenge they have identified. Lending credibility to their projects, as well as connecting them to other sources of support, entrepreneurship support structures help their entrepreneurs secure financing. Through the many events they organize, entrepreneurship support structures revitalize entrepreneurial ecosystems by regularly bringing together the various actors necessary to promote entrepreneurship beyond their sphere of influence.
Much like the projects and entrepreneurs they support, these structures have very different levels of professionalization, are often isolated and lack the necessary visibility and resources to develop and implement strong and sustainable support programs. Strengthening, professionalizing and financing these entrepreneurship support structures remain the key issues today if we are to make innovation a lever of dynamism in the African context.
Incubators, and more generally entrepreneurship support structures, must therefore be strengthened and supported in order to better organize their support they provide to innovators and entrepreneurs: this is the mission that gave rise to the Afric’innov initiative.
This guide is intended to make you understand the work of these entrepreneurship support structures that are building, brick by brick, the foundations of the West African entrepreneurial ecosystem, in partnership with other existing stakeholders. From Dakar to Lagos, from Ouagadougou to Accra, you will discover these key players in Africa’s economic development. These institutions are passionately supporting the emergence of innovative startups in Africa and igniting the local dynamics necessary for innovation and competitiveness.