In a post on their Facebook, the Hypercube Technology Trust, which manages the Hypercube Hub, a coworking space for tech entrepreneurs, announced that they were unable to secure enough funding to continue operations. As a result, they will cease operations at the end of 2015.
The post goes on to reveal that Hypercube has been facing challenges for some time.
“The board of trustees has been tirelessly working around the clock for the past 11 months. Hypercube has been facing challenges for quite some time. We had a hard time finding the right team to execute our mandate. As a result, we failed to implement adequate policies and procedures to support our growth.”
Zimbabwe’s economic woes also hit Hypercube hard, with significant delays in receiving income meaning that the hub was unable to cover operational expenses. As a result, they were unable to adapt their business model quickly enough to adapt to the realities of the Zimbabwean marketplace.
Hypercube opened in November 2013, and it has witnessed some significant successes along the way. Its first incubated startup, uHealthZim, which uses technology for healthcare management, launched in October 2015. The startup focuses on prevention and management of diabetes and hypertension. Also incubated at the hub is Road Rules, an app to help Zimbabweans preparing for their driving test . The app won the 2014 Ampion Venture Bus Competition. The hub also hosted TEDxHarare in 2014 and 2015.
Hypercube counts seven innovative mobile and web applications and services produced in hackathons and Barcamp-style events. At present, the hub has 75 members, and it has conducted grassroots training programs for young people, including Hour of Code, and Robofest, a Robotics Competition for schoolchildren. It was instrumental in the establishment of the Harare Google Developer Group, providing access to Google technologies for tech enthusiasts and developers in Zimbabwe.
One question that lingers with Hypercube’s closure in mind is whether hubs are able to sustain themselves and those they incubate in the long run. Given their role in sustaining startups and entrepreneurs, these hubs occupy an important part of the IT ecosystem, but given the difficulty they face in finding funding, perhaps it’s time for them to look inwards.
The prevailing model for Africa’s 200 or so tech hubs seems to be ‘If we build it they will come’, that is if they build a startup that is innovative and scalable enough, investors will come to finance it. Prevailing evidence suggests that this is not the case, as Tayo Akinyemi, director of Afrilabs, a pan-African network of technology innovation hubs writes. Their main sources of funding are events, consulting and services. To survive, they must find a way to innovate beyond this, she says.
Many tech hubs in Africa are operated as grant-dependent non-profits, receiving funds from prospective investors and using these to finance the startups that inhabit their space. However, as grant monies dwindle and investors seek more solid things to put their money in, this model becomes impossible to work with. The hubs are left with startups that they cannot support, while more promising ideas are unable to take off because the resources that would have otherwise been used to help them out are depleted.
The solution may lie in partnerships with corporates and their strategic interests, or even the government. With increased funding going into the technology sector from these sources, such a move could prove to be a durable, if not replicable strategy for a few hubs in Africa.
Another option would be to create highly investable startups, where the hubs invest in the startups that they incubate in exchange for equity in the business. As the business grows, the hub’s investment is returned, and this can be ploughed back to help more startups grow.
Africa’s tech communities and entrepreneurs have made their home in spaces and hubs all over the continent. Hypercube will be missed, but its closure should teach the other hubs that they need to find ways to monetize their operations. Although we are disappointed in that they are leaving, Hypercube firmly believes the tech community is in good hands, as Zimbabwe has a number of other hubs in operation.