Blog | November 11, 2016 | Melissa Mbugua

There is an artificial divide between civic tech hubs and their more mainstream counterparts – and it’s impeding the growth and impact of tech for governance at a time where it could not be more important for Africa.

This was one of the key discussions I had at the AfriLabs Gathering last week in Accra (read the event report here). I argued that this divide is not only unnecessary, but presents a real danger to tech-supported development, as hub communities talk to themselves and not to each other, as lessons are not shared, and we miss vital opportunities to improve services.

So, in a group that exists to be collaborative, why are tech hubs becoming siloed, and what can we do about it?

Generally, when speaking about tech hubs in Africa, people tend to picture hubs such as iHub, ccHub and CTIC - social enterprises who seek out and nurture tech-focussed entrepreneurs in both profit and non-profit sectors. Hubs provide support to new initiatives by facilitating collaboration between actors across sectors, enabling organisations to better understand the problems they are facing, and providing support and networks of experience for start-ups in particular.

Tech hubs vs civic tech hubs

In most hubs, profitability and sustainability are key watchwords. However, despite the perception of hubs as incubators of the ‘next big thing’ in tech, many entrepreneurs and technologists are actually developing projects concerned with provision of public services - healthcare, education, transportation and security. These innovators seek to understand how new digital tools can be applied to old problems. They may not voice these problems as being ‘civic’ in nature or view themselves as being ‘governance’ or ‘development’ actors. They do not use these terms to differentiate themselves from the broad pool of technology entrepreneurs – and neither do the majority of hubs that support their work.

On the other hand, there is a smaller group of hubs and communities across the continent that do call themselves civic technologists. These are mostly coalesced around Open Data initiatives such as Code for South Africa, Code for Kenya and Code for Ghana. These self-identified civic tech hubs are connected to each other and are incubating tech specifically for governance initiatives. Their approach is very different from mainstream tech hubs, not least because they engage with communities and governments under circumstances and incentives that are vastly different from those in the private sector. They are known by the government, media and civil society organizations that work in the open data movement. However, they are not particularly recognized as a voice within the tech hub community generally.

Differing mandates

Earlier this year, my colleague Greg Ormondi wrote a blog from the Sahara Sparks event in Tanzania, and noted that ICT4D players still seem like new actors in the tech world. He wrote that it seemed to come down to a difference in their fundamental approach “‘I have an idea for an app – I wonder what it could be used for?’ vs ‘I see an issue – can I design something to solve it?

I can’t help but agree, but I also can’t see why this should create such a gap between groups that have collaboration hard-wired into their existence.

One suggestion put forward by tech hubs teams who are a part of Making All Voices Count’s South to South Lab is that funding shapes – and at times distorts – how civic tech hubs and civic tech projects are developed. The idea of hubs is that they provide spaces for creation, for new ideas, but ICT4D funding often comes with pre-designed parameters, undermining the process that makes hubs so appealing in the first place.

Ways forward

But it’s not all bad news. Hubs are still a relatively new phenomenon, and these two approaches are beginning to meet at the point where both types of hubs understand their work as ‘social innovation’. From my point of view, this is something we need to support and nurture.

Already, mainstream and civic tech hubs have a lot to share with each other. Their approaches are not mutually exclusive, and nor should they be. More established, mainstream tech hubs can help civic tech groups frame their projects and funding proposals more realistically to donors – and civic tech hubs can leverage the expertise of their development networks to support better articulation of problems around governance and service delivery.

One way to close the gap between hubs and catalyse the pace of learning about civic tech on the continent is to create more platforms for interaction and exchange between them. Making All Voices Count is doing this by partnering with hubs such as AfriLabs, and last week’s gathering was a continuation of many conversations we are having to link hubs together, and help support knowledge exchange.

But it is work that has to continue and has to be supported – because if we are not careful, this innovative and emerging sector risks making the same old mistakes.

About the author

Melissa Mbugua is Innovation Engagement Officer at Ushahidi