First impressions of Impact Hub Accra: What makes hubs successful?

For the past two weeks I have been based at Impact Hub Accra to assist the team with business development as well as conducting research as part of my master’s in African Studies at Leiden University. As similar hubs continue to emerge across the continent, I seek to investigate the role hubs and innovation centres play in facilitating the pathways of its members.

To explore this I have chosen to use Impact Hub Accra as a unique case study. My research focuses on how this particular hub advocates the trajectories of entrepreneurs, notably ‘social’ entrepreneurs. I will spend the next couple of weeks interviewing resident entrepreneurs, stakeholders and the hub’s management team. I will also observe ‘daily life’ in an attempt to discover and reflect on what makes a hub ‘a hub’, and the dynamic it creates and nurtures with social entrepreneurs. Although I am conducting a case study at one hub, I believe that the findings I will capture are reflective of trends across the hub universe.

Impact Hub Accra

This hub, nestled in the Osu neighbourhood of Accra, first opened it’s doors in April 2013. Initially operating as ‘Hub Accra’, the hub joined the Impact Hub global family in August 2015, simultaneously moving into a neighbouring – but larger – property.

Impact Hub Accra is one of the city’s premier entrepreneurial hotspots. As a collaborative organisation it provides growth support services to innovative start-up businesses, including accelerator programs for entrepreneurs, pitch and leadership workshops, the opportunity to design and prototype and more. The hub, with a 1400 sqm space and close to 200 paying members, is an active nexus where different local and global ecosystem players converge and engage Ghana’s vibrant community of entrepreneurs.

On a global scale, the Impact Hub network currently consists of 80 open hubs, 15,000+ members and 26 spaces in the making. The network focuses on offering a unique ecosystem where resources, inspiration and collaboration opportunities intersect to leverage the ambitions and work of social enterprises every step of the way.

Tapping of keyboards

The steady, daily cohort of co-workers who imbue the air with the tapping of keyboards at Impact Hub Accra is infused with meetings, outdoor coffee breaks and a range of events and programs. Recently the hub hosted ‘Chocothon’, a 5 day conference and hackathon (led by Google and the International Trade Centre amongst other partners) which hosted stakeholders, businesses, individuals and hackers to build sustainable solutions to cocoa supply chains.

Impact Hub AccraPhoto by Owula Kpako Photography

Impact Hub Accra is part of the wider phenomenon of hubs, incubators and accelerators, which have gained prominence on both a global and African scale. Within the African context alone there have been estimates of over 300 active ‘hubs’ as of August 2016. In conjunction with the growth of this phenomenon there have been numerous articles, reports and blog posts investigating the world of hubs and incubators, on both a global as a regional scale. Reflecting on the African uptake of hubs, a the comparative study and report was published in May 2013 by Duncan Gathege and Hilda Moraa of iHub Research. The report looks at factors that have contributed to the growth of 6 hubs across the continent.

Critical success factors

Within the report, differences, similarities and critical success factors for the aforementioned hubs are brought to light. The community of members is seen as key to driving a hub, yet each hub can and often does differ in terms of management structures and guiding principles.

Critical success factors are identified as being government support, strategic partnerships, and research and development opportunities, amongst others. Amongst a myriad of recommendations for the hubs in question (as well as those outside of the investigation), it is suggested that the hubs implement monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, work on long-term sustainability models and introduce investor education programs.

In light of the above-mentioned report and its findings, I decided to briefly reflect on my own first impressions on the operation and environment of Impact Hub Accra. First impressions count. And my first couple of days at the hub immediately alluded to a profound, yet ethereal, sense of what it is that makes this hub, ‘a hub’. From the moment you enter the building you are enveloped within a sense of community and trust.

Transfer of skills and ideas

As first impressions go, what makes the hub what it is, is it’s ability to create a microcosm in which co-workers, visitors, interested parties or even passers-by can play into a vision and mission where sharing, rather than harbouring, knowledge is encouraged. Being vulnerable and open to the transfer of skills, ideas has allowed the hub to flourish beyond its physical buildings and structures.

The building is cool, minimalistic and unimposing. It is an oasis within the city’s traffic and overarching energy, yet it is modest and down-to-earth. The truth is, this could be any building in Accra, especially in light of both the scale and speed of building works, which can be encountered throughout this hot and bustling metropolis. Yet for some reason it is this very building, which has managed to result in a convergence of capital, people, and ideas. Why is that? It is this I hope to investigate over the next couple of weeks.

Environmental factors

There are other, more environmental factors lurking beneath the surface that might lead us towards the answer. For most entrepreneurs, freelancers and aspiring professionals in the city it is simply impossible to afford private office space. It is not unheard of to be asked for 6 months’, a year’s or even two year’s rent in advance, for both residential and commercial properties alike. The hub therefore offers a rare and essential opportunity to be able to engage in activity without having to work from home or a cafe, at a relatively low cost.

Furthermore, Impact Hub Accra is unique in being able to provide its members with fast, secure and reliable Google fiber internet. Whilst internet access of such quality is on the uptake, for the time being it remains a luxury and one which is imperative within the needs of the generation of digital youth.

In the two weeks I have been here I feel that I have only scratched the surface in terms of what really makes Impact Hub Accra what it is. In light of the speed and scale of growth of hubs, incubators and proposed innovation enclaves across the continent- let alone ambitious projects to launch a ‘Silicon Savannah’- I hope that my in-depth, investigate case study might be able to elucidate not only on ‘success’ factors of hubs, but also capture underlying ideas and theories which have necessitated the birth of this phenomenon.

Questions

More critical questions need to be asked and observations made as to how- on a day to day basis- factors such as advance rent payments and lack of infrastructure have led to the development of this and possibly other locations. While intangible elements such as the strength of the community certainly play a crucial role, there must be more at stake here than simply offering a physical space for people to meet and work.

Eline Sleurink is currently based at Impact Hub Accra as part of a combined research and placement project for her master’s in African Studies at Leiden University. During this period she will be publishing a series of guest blog posts on the VC4A platform, which look into the success factors of hubs, the social entrepreneurialism ecosystem and innovation pathways.

Credit for photo at the top of this page: Justice Okai-Allotey

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