Understanding the Botswana Startup Ecosystem: Dr. Budzanani Tacheba
Dr. Budzanani Tacheba, Botswana Innovation Hub’s Director of Cluster Development has vast experience in various start-up and corporate environments. He is well known for his innovation work with Botswana’s entrepreneurs and how he facilitated the establishment of the Botswana Innovation Hub as a private company.
In preparation for the Botswana Invest Forum being held in Belgium on May 26th, we sat down with Dr. Tacheba to discuss some of the differences and similarities between the start-up and innovation ecosystems in Kenya, Israel and Botswana. He outlines some of the strengths that Botswana has, where it can gather inspiration from other ecosystems, and the direction in which the Botswana start-up ecosystem is moving.
What do you think is driving innovation in Botswana?
Botswana, just like most of Africa’s emerging economies, has kept abreast with new and modern ways of creating a diversified wealth portfolio and uplifting the standard of living of its people. The high unemployment statistics at national level have triggered a new perspective for the Batswana, especially for our youth, who have found an inherent spirit of creativity in a quest to create employment. This is the main factor that drives innovation in Botswana: the need to change people’s lives through the exploration of new ways of doing things and a new approach to life in general.
Human capital is a fundamental element of the start-up ecosystem and is the driving factor behind innovation. How is human capital contributing to the success of Botswana’s start-ups?
The national demographics show that more than 60% of the country’s population is currently under 35 years. Since the 80’s the Batswana have benefitted from free education from basic to tertiary level. This has maintained high literacy rates, which has resulted in the younger segment of our population being well connected and linked into global trends. Taking advantage of the demographic dividend that we can see offers great opportunity for success for Botswana’s tech start-ups. In my view, this is the human capital that is critical to the development of future start-ups, which are new companies that perceive solutions beyond just the national needs. The establishment of the Botswana Innovation Hub was a strategic move to identify and support innovations with potential for market growth. Thanks to this development, we have seen an upsurge in the start-up community, especially in new companies which are liked to ICT, but also with a steady growth in areas like Clean Tech, Biotechnology and Mining. The role of human capital development remains critical to ensure the future success of Botswana’s start-up enterprises.
Both Kenya and Israel are considered to be hubs for emerging tech companies. They have a very international landscape when focusing on start-ups and entrepreneurs. How can Botswana benefit from looking at these countries, and what can be learnt from these ecosystems?
We have already identified what we believe is most relevant to Botswana’s nascent national system of innovation, especially concerning defragmentation in the product development and commercialisation framework. In the case of Kenya we have appreciated that it took creating internationally relevant solutions such as the mobile money transactions revolution. Following this, the country and its ecosystem became a hot-bed for solution seeking multinationals which can only survive when they expand their footprint internationally. We have since seen the development of new tech hubs and research labs where test-beds for prototyping and further developing of new solutions are a norm. This has led to more products and services reaching far and wide markets since the development of the Kenyan Innovation system especially when it comes to tech start-ups. The development of the Kenyan Innovation system has allowed their products and services to reach faraway markets, especially when it comes to the products of tech startups. To some extent, Kenyan tech startups were not driven by the government, but emerged due to existing gaps that needed to be addressed. For example, the iHub in Kenya is a platform which adds direct value to startups through vetting and training. This ensures that they can provide seamless services to customers, who are now familiarised to the services provided by startups united within the Hub. At Botswana Innovation Hub (BIH), we are creating similar avenues, which include exploring the potential of innovative methods to procure services from these startups, and incentives based on that.
In the case of Israel, we have come to appreciate that it is a classic case of an innovation driven economy. The heavy investment by the government and private sector on growing and supporting startups has led to some of the world’s best innovations, and they continue to excel in the number of companies that exit on an annual basis, especially to the US and at a very high price tag. For a mature ecosystem this is to be expected. What we have observed is that the Israeli government has several government interventions and practical policies in place which provide Israeli startups with a number of support structures, which include access to specialised infrastructure and equipment to fully develop and test the innovations under different control environments before they are commercialised.
The BIH is currently working with the Israel Innovation Authority to provide capacity to our policy makers on modern methods of creating national wealth through innovation. This will significantly help to increase the level of support available to startups, through the adoption of simple innovation policies that are practical to implement and which are based on the world’s best practices. We have also partnered with an Israeli water technology company to develop tailor-made solutions to local water challenges while simultaneously building capacity and allowing for technology transfer, which is a critical component in the further development and adoption of innovations in new environments. One way in which we have chosen to implement the pilot phase of the project is by working with local startups.
What are some of the similarities and differences between the startup ecosystems in Kenya and Botswana? And if there there none, could you compare them with other similar emerging ecosystems in Africa?
The ecosystems in Kenya and Botswana are similar in the opportunities that are available to startups, which are the result of globalisation and glocalisation . The demographics of both countries are also similar, as their youth has a similar education background, and they are exposed to similar initiatives that drive the development of their national innovation ecosystems. The major difference, however, is that Kenya has a bigger population and hence benefits through economies of scale. Furthermore, the country has a lead in attracting multinational corporations that need the innovation environment they have created.
Kenya has immensely benefitted from the first major successes in mobile technology, which were marketed and communicated across the globe. This attracted a lot of attention. Private tech-hubs have begun to find relevance in the Kenyan informal sector, creating major disruptions that have the potential to destabilise some of the established multinationals, especially in the fintech sector, which includes crowd funding. To get to this point, Botswana still requires a change in culture in terms of adopting innovative solutions away from conventional procurements. There is need for product quality assurance and standardisation, which are some of the gaps in the whole innovation ecosystem.
For Israel and Botswana, both countries have similar national challenges in the Agritech, Biotechnology and Clean Tech spaces, which generates potential for the transfer of technology and commercialisation. They also share a special focus on the exploitation of local talent to address national challenges. The major difference is that Israel is a very advanced nation, in that most of its sectors are driven by innovation. Israel’s industry is well-developed and provides strong support to the tech startup ecosystem. This comes on top of a mature policy framework on the ground that actually works!
Silicon Valley is one of the largest innovation hubs in the world and is often seen as an avenue into the international market. Over the past several years, both Kenya and Israel have established relationships within Silicon Valley, with Kenya leaning more on its diaspora. How can Botswana leverage the relationships Kenya has in order to advance their entrepreneurial goals and ecosystem?
We greatly value the synergised system that is Silicon Valley as a global innovation hub. It took years and certainly cannot be replicated. But as you point out, having a relationship with the Valley ensures constant reflection on the ecosystem. In our case the most effective linkages to the Valley may not be through our diaspora, which is very limited, but through identifying acceleration platforms which we can expose our tech startups to, in order to gain experience. We also leverage on partnerships with world-class academic institutes and business schools, which constantly study the behaviour and trends of entrepreneurs and businesses to give us guidance. Lastly, there is access to some of the world-class companies that are interested in new tech hubs, so they can discover new fresh way of thinking for their future product design and fine tuning. We work closely with commercial tech accelerators, venture capital development enterprises, R&D and corporates. Furthermore we encourage the presence of most tech hubs and business schools from the Valley in the Botswana Innovation Hub Science Park. Lastly, even though we have a relatively small diaspora, many of whom are university graduates with the help of government supported schemes, we try to encourage these people to stay connected with the tech entrepreneurship programmes at BIH.
What should we expect for the future of the Botswana startup ecosystem?
We started the Botswana Innovation Hub to support the growth of the startup ecosystem through capacity building, nurturing, coaching, facilitating access to funding, legal, audit, marketing and key governance practices. Beyond that, we also make key infrastructure available to startups, which includes maker-spaces, co-creation spaces, design tools and prototyping platforms, vetting and exposure to the market starting with government procurement sensitisation . We believe that this will add real value for local tech startups that are still to be identified, as well as long term technology and innovation providers, which will allow them to address industry and sector challenges. We want to build the deal flow that will ensure there is continuity in the uptake of innovative solutions and their outputs nationally and regionally, through a robust framework of vetting and recommending to solution seekers. This we believe is our strategic role in closing existing gaps in the innovation value chain that exists in Botswana.