“The empowerment of young people and women lies at the heart of our organization,” declares Fatouma Harber — human rights activist, teacher, blogger and CEO of SankoréLabs. SankoréLabs is an incubator that also provides training and co-working spaces to young entrepreneurs in Timbuktu in northern Mali. Named for the city’s world-renowned historical university and 14th century mosque, SankoréLabs provides aspiring entrepreneurs with support and a space to work. Along with meeting incubees’ IT, internet and networking needs, the incubator is also a vehicle to promote better local governance and enhance citizen engagement in a region that desperately needs both.
Founded in January 2016, INCUBONS provides access to co-working spaces and free services to social enterprises and start-ups including intensive technical assistance, mentoring and 24/7 coaching. The incubator has an extensive outreach program, including events, debates and concerts, as well as networking opportunities to connect their incubees (10 companies a year) to each other and to potential partners and investors. INCUBONS also provides pre-incubation counters where people can present their ideas and projects are diagnosed free-of-charge and then referred to affordable training courses.
Incubators, accelerators and technological hubs have proliferated in Africa over the past 5 years to support early-stage African entrepreneurs. But many of these organizations remain relatively new and isolated, with varying levels of professionalism and limited means and tools at their disposal.
“Without the necessary efficiency, effectiveness and scale, incubators’ efforts will not be reflected in their beneficiary entrepreneurs’ ability to overcome the binding constraints in the ecosystem and scale up; and their impact in terms of business growth, disruptive innovation and job creation will remain limited,” said Christian Jekinnou, coordinator of Afric’Innov at the launch of the recent Conference on Innovation: International and Global South (Rencontres de l’Innovation International & Sud). “This is exactly why Afric’Innov was set up, aiming to professionalize these institutions supporting entrepreneurship, and why events such as the Conference on Innovation are crucial, enabling us to deploy our tools,” he added.
As part of its strategy to support growth entrepreneurship, the World Bank joined Afric’Innov’s steering committee as an observer member. This role will allow the Bank to analyze pilot schemes that support Africa’s incubators through training and interest-free loans, as well as by certifying mature incubators and conducting feasibility assessments to scale up projects.
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The Malian diaspora counts between four and six million people, many of whom have benefited from a good education and rich experiences, that could help develop high-potential businesses in their home countries.
However, starting and running a business in Mali isn’t easy. That’s why Pape Wane, a Malian reality TV producer, decided to partner with local business incubators to launch the Diaspora Entrepreneurship competition in order to identify, promote, and support members of the diaspora community who can seize business opportunities in Mali, while also understanding the unique challenges of the local ecosystem.
Using the codes of reality TV, the competition has strived to resonate with Mali’s youth by increasing their awareness of entrepreneurship’s potential to address the country’s socio-economic challenges.
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What is it like to set up and run an incubator as a woman? The answer, much like anywhere else in the world for working women, is that it’s complicated.
In many countries, it’s still unusual to see women working in certain sectors. Regina Mbodj, CTIC Dakar CEO, knows very few women in Senegal who studied ICT. “When I came home and told people about my studies, a lot of people responded, 'I thought only men did that!'"
Mariem Kane, an engineer by training and now president of Mauritania’s incubator Hadina RIMTIC, said that career development can be difficult for women who have been trained in hard skills. “It’s tough for women to find opportunities in these sectors and, because we’re considered more suited to softer skills, we aren’t given the opportunity to prove ourselves.”
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As we saw in our second blog, . Yet, in many West-African countries, long-standing stigmas against the private sector are still big obstacles for women and young people who aspire to become entrepreneurs.
Family support, in particular, remains critical for women’s career choices, and the private sector doesn’t always enjoy a good reputation among parents. “It’s very hard for them [parents] to understand why we want to do this instead of getting a steady government job,” says Binta Ndiaye, MakeSense Africa CEO. “My mother is an entrepreneur, but she did that on top of her regular job and raising a family in France, so it’s not seen as a career in-and-of-itself.”
“Entrepreneurship is inherently risky, so if you don’t have that support and encouragement, or even your family’s blessing to go for it, I can understand that it could be extremely challenging for some women,” says Mariem Kane, founder and president of Mauritania’s incubator Hadina RIMTIC.
Ndiaye for one, though, is not deterred: “It’s up to us to educate them on this potential and to have the resolve to follow-through. If you can convince skeptical parents, you can convince any investor.”
Considering that these incubators are run by women, do they make special efforts to recruit women entrepreneurs?
Lisa Barutel founder and CEO of La Fabrique, acknowledges that even though La Fabrique received a huge response to a recent call for proposals targeting women, far fewer apply to general calls that do not have a specific focus on women entrepreneurship. “Normally we don’t go out looking for candidates, as we can be inundated with applications, but when we noticed this discrepancy, we did launch a program to identify women with potential,” she says.
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Across West Africa, it’s very difficult to find a workplace as innovative and diverse as business incubators. Known for their young, energized, and often gender-balanced staff, these organizations are an encouraging indication of what’s in store in the coming decades, as the region presents a younger, more open, and increasingly female workforce to the world.
In francophone West Africa—where there was not a single incubator at the beginning of 2011—six young women are currently leading major incubators, some of which have World Bank Group support.
With backgrounds in computer science, engineering, finance, logistics, project management, and social entrepreneurship, . Given the World Bank Group’s commitment to promoting gender equality, as laid out in the Gender Strategy, our team talked to them to learn more about their work and leadership experience.
Across francophone Africa, incubators are emerging rapidly to support a new generation of young entrepreneurs. Despite their huge potential, however, incubators are just one of many players in a typical entrepreneurial ecosystem. So it is increasingly important that incubators — in addition to allocating the necessary resources, services and funding to worthy start-ups — provide them with a platform to share and transfer knowledge across the ecosystem, not only with each other but also with the investors, research centers and industry experts upon which their businesses will ultimately depend.
As with Impact Hub Bamako, incubators can be part of broader international franchises, while others are anchored by academic, public or private bodies (or some hybrid of the three) and may already be associated with other incubators. Bond’innov, for example, is an incubator that promotes entrepreneurship cooperation between the global North and the South and that is headquartered in Paris and located on-campus with the Institute for Development Research, a large multidisciplinary research organization operating in more than 50 developing countries.