Case study: mLab Southern Africa
By: Päivi Lakka
In this post, I will analyze the strengths and weaknesses of a living lab called mLab Southern Africa. MLab is based in The Innovation Hub in Tshwane, South Africa. The living laboratory defines itself as a mobile solution laboratory and startup accelerator emphasizing the creation and development of innovative mobile applications and services. As also Kenya has a fast developing telecommunication sector, I will analyze how using mLab South Africa as an example, could help develop a Kenyan hybrid model combining innovation and education to help forward creativity, skills, leadership qualities and entrepreneurial knowledge.
MLab South Africa living lab is taking advantage of the trend of growing use of mobile phones and different applications, happening all around Africa. They offers entrepreneurs and mobile developers help with developing new and creative innovations in the form of mobile applications and services. In practice, they offer help with learning to code, hiring developers and finding funding. mLab offers a shared space for entrepreneurs to network, have the possibility to use different tools needed for their work, receive consultation from experts and finally, start up their own business. The living laboratory participates in all the steps of creating innovation and working in support of various stakeholders. Local programmers, designers and mobile application developers can join the living laboratory and offer their expertise. At mLab, there are several ways of developing an application, from joining an education program to hiring someone to do the work for you.
mLab is working in co-operation with two organizations: CSIR Meraka Institute and The Innovation Hub. The CSIR is a predominant scientific and technology research, development and implementation organization working in Africa to improve the national competitiveness as well as the quality of life of the country’s people. The Innovation Hub is a Science and Technology Park based in Pretoria, Gauteng in South Africa, considered as the most important location where innovation and knowledge is created in the region. There is a space concentrating specifically on the networking of different stakeholders, such as high-tech entrepreneurs, global businesses, academics, researchers and venture capitalists. mLab is also working in collaboration with Microsoft, Qualcomm and Nokia. mLab declares to offer top end events, connections, equipments, applications and technological devices and claims to be in close contact with local businesses, the public sector, civil society and universities around the whole of South Africa.
Through this co-operation, mLab can offer talented young people the resources, such as network connections and expertise they need in order to carry out their ideas into new innovations. GESCI-AKE could learn from the example of mLab in how they are closely connected with the above mentioned stakeholders. Widening the partnership to local academic institutions, other living labs, technology experts and funders is relevant in order to widen the innovation ecosystem.
mLab Southern Africa also created the CodeTribe Academy in collaboration with The Innovation Hub. The idea of this academy is to develop the talents of young people skilled with ICT and distribute scholarships for these young people in order for them to participate. In the class, students themselves teach and learn from each other coding and hacking. mLab states ambitiously that the academy is training ”the next generation of software developers.”
In conclusion, I decided to investigate the case mLab because of its strong connection with the telecommunication sector and mobile applications. Kenya has such a strong growth of mobile industry and the use of phones. In my opinion, the sector should be made a part of these living labs in a stronger way. The mobile money service M-Pesa already helps tech startups and this should be considered, also because three out of four adults use mobile payments. Working in co-operation with these mobile payments platforms helps digital entrepreneurs, but it has not yet been completely discovered in the case of Kenya.
When observing the SWOT-analysis of the Kenyan current situation, there would still be problems integrating the model of mLab Southern Africa into Kenya. The living lab model of mLab Southern Africa could offer help with the challenges of the Kenyan current situation concerning the problems of concentrating only on talents with high educational background and neglecting the disadvantaged part of the population. As the goal of GESCI-AKE is to offer people coming from disadvantaged background the possibilities to work with the digital creative industries, it could follow the example of mLab Southern Africa in offering talented young people more teaching for free, as a big part of Kenyans are still struggling with poverty. By doing this, the country could discover new talents in the field. The GESCI-AKE policy brief also mentioned that Kenyan industry needs more talented workers in order to respond to all the rising opportunities on the field and that digital evolution is already changing the job market in the country. In South Africa, just as in Kenya, university and college education is still focusing on preparing students for already existing jobs, instead of encouraging the students for an entrepreneurial career.
GESCI-AKE could also offer solutions in offering funding for new start-ups. As we mentioned in the background information about Kenya, the economy of the country is growing, but Kenya needs to develop its business environment to maintain this competitiveness. Kenya’s weakness is still the lack of funding and business angels at the prototype stage of new startups. The country does not have a lot of investors working in the early stages of startups and a big number of startups are self-funded. These entrepreneurs should be encouraged and supported in building networks to finance their ideas. mLab could show GESCI-AKE the example in how actively they work on finding funding by connecting the founders of new innovations with seed, venture and angel investors.