There’s a growing list of bodies uniting startup ecosystem enablers across the continent. Yet, few within the countries. This is partly because enablers within countries look at each other as competitors, rather than potential collaborators. However, BICU, an association to unite Ugandan hubs, is looking at cultivating the collaboration spirit.
AfriLabs, in their 2016 annual gathering report, recommended that “hubs must not see themselves as competitors but collaborate [instead].” This was one of the proposed pathways to ensuring that hubs across the continent become sustainable. Seeing that majority of them are struggling to become self-sustaining.
Two years later, Ugandan hubs are coming together once again under BICU, Business Innovation Consortium Uganda.
“Business Innovation Consortium Uganda was started as early as 2012,” says Richard Zulu, the founder of Outbox Hub and the current head of BICU. “By that time, it was a discussion that was born out of StartupWeekend.”
Initially, in 2012, the association had 7 members; Mara Launchpad, FinAfrica, Hive Colab, Outbox Hub, Grameen Foundation, The Hub Kampala and Makerere University Software Incubation Centre. But, some have since gone off the scene.
“The main reason was how do we come together as players supporting entrepreneurship and collectively have a common voice that promotes advocacy, visibility around the kind of work we were doing but actually in a way [that] plays as a standard,” said Richard Zulu.
“So we came together and brainstormed and the conclusion was that it is very important to be together. But we have to do it in such a way that we complement what the [other BICU] members are doing.”
On its first attempt, the association members carried out a few initiatives together.
“I think we held one or two events together and the value was to bring the communities together to learn from each other,” said Richard.
Yet, immediately after, members started going in different directions. Something Richard attributes to the lack of demonstration of value to the members. “I believe where we fell short just like any other association is the value,” Richard pointed out.
“How do you demonstrate value to your members? These are busy people. Why should they put effort into this? So it went quiet.”
In their second attempt, the association now wants to focus on giving value to each member. One of the things they hope each member to enjoy is the collective advocacy and lobbying. Especially with the central government.
“We felt that despite the fact that have been here as members, one of the most important players in the ecosystem [government] needs to recognize us,” Richard said.
Government's role in the growth of a Startup Ecosystem cannot be overlooked. That's why it is necessary that enablers have a healthy relationship with it. Yet, before deciding to come together, hubs were engaging the government individually.
“We were having different conversations with government around different things and we felt that it is not effective advocating individually,” Richard said.
When they sat on the table, they thought that "we rather have a common voice where we advocate for visibility and the kind of audience that we need.”
Another recommendation that was made in the AfriLabs 2016 Annual General Report was that “government(s) must support [hubs] in terms of policy.” But, they also added that hubs “have to be clear about what governments have for us” as well as the “need to challenge what they [governments give to us.”
Richard also thinks that hubs shouldn’t look at each other as a competitor, rather, a collaborator.
“We have carved out [our position in the ecosystem] as individuals but collectively as enablers, we have to have that kind of positioning.” That kind of positioning that Richard talks about cannot be easily achieved alone.
Currently, the association has 5 members. These include Resilient Africa Network, Innovation Village, Hive Colab, and Women in Technology Uganda. Going by the figure put out by GSMA in their 2018 report, at least 10 haven’t yet joined.
“We haven't yet interested Design Hub [and others] in becoming a part of the association,” Richard said. “But definitely, these are some of the things we are looking into.”
He says that they are “still in the process of formalizing [the membership processes].” Though, points out that “the current status was driven by members who have entrepreneurial initiatives beyond just co-working.”
In its current format, a hub can only join through invitation or application. There’s no definite process. “It is still up for discussion on whether one should apply to join or just get invited to join,” Richard says. Adding that “I think in my opinion it is both.”