Will Tanzania’s two new innovation hubs boost the country’s tech scene?

For Nzota Yonazi, an information technology student at Dar es Salaam’s Institute of Finance Management, Dar’s new Innovation Space offers clear advantages over working from home. “The environment is cool, it’s convenient,” Yonazi explains, “and at my place… the power is usually out.”

Amidst the crawling traffic jams, sweltering heat and all too frequent power outages that curse the city, two new innovation hubs, Kinu Hub and TanzICT’s Innovation Space at COSTECH (Tanzanian Commission for Science and Technology), are challenging the notion that tech just won’t take off in Tanzania, offering an oasis of coding, networking, co-creating, and yes, air-conditioning.

Kinu, launched last month with generous grants from Google and Indigo Trust, is an open space for Tanzania’s tech community to “foster a culture of co-creation, spark innovation and augment capacity building”. TanzICT’s Innovation Space, part of a bilateral Tanzania-Finland development project, is also working to “energise” the technology ecosystem, and help Tanzania move towards an information technology society.

Together, these hubs are attempting to shape the future of Tanzania’s technology landscape, and piloting very uncharted waters.

If there is one truthful stereotype of Tanzania, it is that the country can be painstakingly slow. “Pole pole” (slowly slowly), the catchphrase Tanzanians so often revert to with warm broad smiles, makes a terrible mantra for startups. It also creates a challenging environment for an emerging business ecosystem.

There is little private investment in the tech sector, and as Tanzanian entrepreneur Mbwana Alliy writes, in recent years there have been “too many parties at the table with multiple agendas that were not conducive to focusing on supporting entrepreneurs”.

With Kenya’s ‘Silicon Savannah’ booming to the north, and money being ploughed into Rwanda’s ICT dreamland to the west, Tanzania seems to have been left in the dust.

“People are not willing to experiment”, argues Arnold Minde, a local tech entrepreneur who built SMS Salaama, an SMS encryption software, and is now working on Safari Yetu, a business management software which allows bus operators to manage reservations, accounting and payments. As a result, adoption of new technologies and innovation has been sluggish.

People around the world from Brazil to India were downloading SMS Salaama, but no one in Tanzania was using the service. “I couldn’t even get my friends to use it,” Minde chuckles.

“There is a resistance to technology in Tanzanian society,” Minde claims, adding that there is an unjustified fear “people’s jobs might be threatened by technology, despite that it can actually make people’s jobs easier”.

Yet with the completion of Tanzania’s national ICT backbone, and three undersea cables now serving the nation, the gears are in motion to kickstart the country’s lurching ICT sector.

TanzICT’s Innovation Space at the Tanzanian Commission for Science and Technology. Picture: Jonathan Kalan

It all began last July, when Ory Okolloh, co-founder of Ushahidi and Google’s policy manager for Africa, began pulling together Dar es Salaam’s tech entrepreneurs for the first ever BarCamp Dar. BarCamp, an international network of user-generated conferences holds open, participatory workshop-like events around the world focused on technology

“It was a huge success”, says Johnpaul Barretto, who helped organise the conference and is now managing Kinu. “People showed up, presented, and got engaged.” It was the first time Dar’s fragmented tech community came together as one, presenting an enormous opportunity.

Tanzania’s loosely connected tech-entrepreneurs leveraged BarCamp’s success, and built momentum for Dar’s tech scene. In the subsequent months, they organised events like Mobile Mondays; Dar Developers Dash (D3), a hack-a-thon to find solutions to social problems like water and public safety; and an Apps4Africa Brainstorm, where teams came together to find tech-based solutions to climate change.

As a result of these events, conversations, and community-building initiatives, the need for a physical “space” was all too clear.

While Kinu and TanzICT’s Innovation Space may have similar goals, they are structured quite differently. Kinu is run as a private “social enterprise”, with a private-sector board of Tanzania’s leading technologists. It seeks eventual financial sustainability through membership, events and other methods they are currently working out.

The Innovation Space, housed in COSTECH’s building, offers free membership, and is part of a broader four-year TanzICT project being implemented by the Finnish government, which aims to revise the national ICT policy, build capacity of the Ministry of Communications, Science and Technology.

Since opening in October of last year, the Innovation Space has hosted more than 60 events, meet-ups, workshops and presentations, most of which are community driven. The hubs often collaborate on events in each other’s spaces, and there seems to be a mutually beneficial relationship.

Kristiina Lahde, chief technical advisor of TanzICT, who helps run day-to-day operations at the Innovation Space, says that there are advantages to having both spaces. “With public money, you can experiment with things, see what works, see what doesn’t work,” she says. Though Kinu was launched with grant funding, its private-sector edge may make it less flexible, and open. It will also, however, make it more attractive for investors.

These two spaces are exactly what Dar es Salaam has been missing. High-speed wi-fi, community-driven workshops, mentorship, and networking will all be useful for Tanzania’s young tech community. So will constant electricity, empty couch space, and air-conditioning. Now, whether Tanzanians will enthusiastically adopt what the community creates, is another question.