Part of infoDev’s Digital Entrepreneurship Program (DEP), the mLab Southern Africa (SA) is a solutions laboratory and startup accelerator that provides local entrepreneurs with the support they need to develop innovative mobile applications and services. In the almost three years since its launch, mLab SA has managed to build a mobile ecosystem where none existed. Based at The Innovation Hub in Tshwane, South Africa, the mLab SA has virtual programs throughout southern Africa and is planning to create new hubs in the region. To find out more about the center and its successful model, we interviewed Derrick Kotze, mLab SA CEO.
Q: Could you describe for us some of the unique innovative approaches the mLab SA has pioneered?
When mLab launched in South Africa in 2012 there wasn’t much of a mobile ecosystem; we had to wear many hats to help stimulate and pull together a very fragmented ecosystem. Today, almost three years later, we are able to focus on specific areas where we can bring the most value and deliver on other important elements like student outreach, training, Hackathons etc.
This approach has also allowed us to extend our mandate beyond just apps and has seen us supporting and building the foundations for programs that focus on women ICT entrepreneurs, digital and data focused design, open R&D, and electronics. In a sense, we have retained the experimental values that the mLab was founded on by constantly adapting and optimizing. We have also tried to learn from existing models around the world (not just Silicon Valley) and made a strategic decision to keep our model agile and evolving. This has helped us stay relevant and create opportunities for other actors in the ecosystem.
Q: Could you discuss taking the mLab SA model to scale? Has the model been replicated elsewhere by the government or the private sector?
The mLab SA entered into a scaling phase only over the last six months, mainly due to our model maturing and the local market reaching more scale in its demand for mobile innovation and enterprise development. We are currently in the process of expanding our presence in Cape Town (Western Cape Province) and also priming the ecosystem in Kimberley (Northern Cape Province), both very different markets from each other but also from Gauteng where we have our main base.
What we have learned and place a high consideration on for our expansion is that the mLab should be unique and demand-focused in each location, not simply a clone of the previous one. We shape the models based on the current state of the ecosystem. mLab doesn’t exist in a vacuum and collaboration is very important. So when we enter a new market (province/town/city), we start with creating partnerships and identifying the maturity of that ecosystem. For example, if there aren’t sufficient skills to convert into startups then the focus should be less on incubation and more on mobile skills development. This in turn impacts our partnerships, programs, and target audience.
Some of our partnerships include enterprise and skills development programs with the Department of Science & Technology, Provincial Economic Development Departments in Gauteng & Northern Cape, MTN Foundation, Intel, Google Developer Groups, and previously Vodacom, Ericsson, Nokia, Microsoft and Qualcomm.
Q: What are some of the major challenges technology oriented entrepreneurs face in starting and/or growing their businesses?
The biggest challenge by far is skills availability. There is a massive shortage of software developers and digital designers in Africa. Coupled with the huge demand from existing industries, these skills are difficult to find and afford.
Access to small and early stage capital is another obstacle in getting started. There isn’t enough early stage investment to create sufficient MVPs (minimal viable products) to allow for a healthy pipeline that VCs can invest in. I don’t think real venture capital is limited in Africa and one hears the VCs always complaining about the deal flow. So as crazy as it may sound, there needs to be significantly more and regular investment in failures if we have any chance of creating big successes!
Q: How does the mLab SA provide a holistic solution to these challenges?
The mLab SA doesn’t provide solutions per se, and that’s crucial to understand in any ecosystem. The solution lies in collaboration and many different actors working together. We offer our strengths and capacity to a growing support network in South Africa and I believe we have always played a strong role at the early investment stage.
The mLab SA provides a fully subsidized environment where developers, designers and entrepreneurs can collaborate on projects. These projects range from potentially large exit type opportunities to smaller businesses that can be sustained and provide a real livelihood for their founders.
Not every startup needs to be a unicorn. Once these products, services or businesses reach a viable stage, they can move into the larger ecosystem and to a next stage of support through other programs like business incubators or secure longer-term investment. Or if they fail, teams can reuse and restructure them to develop a new opportunity.
Q: How is the mLab SA trying to be inclusive in terms of the entrepreneurs reached: i.e. reaching youth, people in townships, disadvantaged people, etc.?
The mLab SA is a strong advocate for creating opportunities among the most disadvantaged. While we have been successful in reaching the youth, we are restricted by our physical presence. This means that we serve a larger urban community than rural or township. We do however have a good number of members who have moved from other provinces, rural areas, and also other African countries to work with the mLab SA.
Locally, there is a high national and provincial priority on township development, and as such we are seeing a number of township-based hubs being established. In line with our strategy of collaboration and tapping into existing programs, we are working with some of the stakeholders and supporting programs in these hubs. One of the mLab startups, Geekulcha.com, provides regular trainings in partnership with The Innovation Hubs such as eKasiLabs in Ga-Rankuwa.
Q: What impact is the mLab SA having on the digital innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem in South Africa?
It is hard to quantify our role in the larger digital innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem. However, I believe our participation and support of local programs, events and activities has played a role in growing the ecosystem to its current level. A good measure of growth for us lies in the fact that there are numerous activities and programs conducted by others, which we would have previously had to host or develop independently.