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Hope and Hype in Africa’s Digital Economy: The Rise of Innovation Hubs

Author: Friederici, N.
Published in: M. Graham (Ed.), Digital Economies at Global Margins (pp. 193-222). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, IDRC.
Year: 2019
Type: Book contributions and chapters

Investigations of what increasing digital connectivity and the digitalization of the economy mean for people and places at the world's economic margins... Africa is experiencing a boom in technology entrepreneurship. High hopes have been invested in the continent’s home-grown digital economy, envisioned to become an engine of rapid socioeconomic development and transformation. African governments are building entire cities for technology companies ( Saraswati 2014 ; Vourlias 2015 ), larger and larger amounts of risk capital are being invested (Disrupt Africa 2016; VC4Africa 2014), and officials at the highest levels are celebrating and seeking affiliation with grassroots entrepreneurs ( Hersman 2015 ; Wakoba 2014 ). Slogans like “Africa rising” (Economist 2011), “The Next Africa” ( Bright and Hruby 2015a ), and “Silicon Savannah” ( Graham and Mann 2013 ) capture the sentiment that Africa is now a continent of economic opportunity and growth, driven by ubiquitous entrepreneurship, a growing middle class of consumers, a well-educated and driven economic elite, and improving Internet infrastructure. In this chapter, I document and analyze a phenomenon that has been at the heart of the continent’s technology entrepreneurship boom: the rise of innovation hubs. The number of hubs on African soil increased from a handful in 2010, to about 90 in 2013, to 117 in late 2015, and finally to 173 in June 2016 ( BongoHive 2013 ; Firestone and Kelly 2016 ; Kelly 2014 ). ... The purpose of this chapter is thus threefold. First, I chart the diffusion history of African hubs. Second, I elicit the key expectations for hubs, held by different actor groups. Third, I ask why hubs have spread so quickly across Africa. My exploration in this chapter is part of a multiyear empirical study on African hubs and digital entrepreneurship. Ultimately, this chapter warns against the supply-side focus and functionalism that is implicit in donors’ and the media’s accounts of hubs: the fact that hubs have diffused quickly does not say anything about the local demand for hubs, nor does it speak to hubs’ impact or success. Instead, the diffusion of hubs appears to have been the result of a match between what hubs have been envisioned to do and contemporary paradigms of entrepreneurship- and technology-led economic development ( Avgerou 2010 ; Friederici, Ojanperä, and Graham 2017 ; Steyaert and Katz 2004 ). For policy and practice, it will be necessary to move beyond the hub hype, and to think through limitations and negative side effects.

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