Interview: Tech incubation spaces are just one piece of the ecosystem – Richard Zulu

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Outbox founder, Richard Zulu. Image credit: Lions Africa

Richard Zulu the founder of Outbox Hub is a tech specialist with 6 years of experience building and managing the developer and startup ecosystem, and counts a Google student Ambassadorship among his accolades.

Outbox, founded in 2012 provides co-working space, mentorship and training programs for start-up ventures and tech enthusiasts. Through Outbox’s partnership network, they help new start-ups to raise money for their ventures and to access markets.

Four years later, Outbox has already housed 13 resident start-ups that have raised over $1,000,000 and created 80 jobs. It has also channeled over 7,000 participants through in-house workshops.

I caught up with Richard Zulu to talk about his journey with the tech incubation space, Outbox and the tech innovation ecosystem of Uganda at large.

Outbox founder, Richard Zulu. Image credit: Lions Africa
Outbox founder, Richard Zulu. Image credit: Lions Africa

What are some of the most successful projects, notable apps and inventions that have come out of your space in the past 4 years?

We have had tremendous success with supporting a number of entrepreneurs’ access resources to build their businesses. For example Ensibuuko, a cloud based management information system for Savings Cooperatives (SACCOS) has been a great beneficiary of our business development efforts. This enabled them access seed funding through partnerships we cultivated. Ensibuuko currently employs up-to 10 individuals, supports more than 100 SACCOS and has raised up-to $500,000 in equity seed funding. Matatu, a classic game that has been translated into a dynamic mobile game app is another successful initiative that has benefited from our co-working services, subsidies to their business development efforts to drive user adoption. Matatu now has over 200,000 downloads on Google play store, with an average player spending up-to 27 mins within the game.

A successful project we implemented is the Women Passion Program that sought to upskill women and girls with leadership, web programming, human centered design and lean startup methodology skills. We were able to train up-to 80 girls of which four of them got into full-time employment as a result of our program. This was a program supported by Google for Entrepreneurs and Wetech.

Residents of Outbox at a training session. Photo Credit: Outbox (Medium)
Residents of Outbox at a training session. Photo Credit: Outbox (Medium)

What significant lessons have you learnt about the Tech ecosystem of Uganda in comparison to Kenya’s and rest of Sub Saharan Africa?

Our tech ecosystem is at an infant stage with very huge potential. Some of the lessons learnt are the following:

  • Huge untapped potential that needs upskilling

We have a number of youth that are interested in technology, without the necessary skillset to partake of the opportunities before them. On the flip side, there is a very large demand for skilled software developers, with very few or no individuals to take these opportunities up. My learnings is that we have to take collectively take an effort of exposing these individuals to the required opportunities for them to upskill. There is no shortage of jobs in our field, there is only a shortage of skilled individuals to scoop them up. This is a general problem in many parts of the African continent.

  • Lack of civil society lobbying associations will fail the ecosystem

We are still trying to figure out how to best utilize our associations to build lobbying capabilities in order to drive favorable policy for small businesses and entrepreneurs. However, there is very limited deliberate effort to realize that capacity collectively as an ecosystem. As such, if we do not move fast enough, we shall witness a top-down approach to regulation that could end up not being favorable. In other ecosystems, the power of lobbying within civil society is rather more developed and as such, the result is better regulation.

  • Ownership drives ecosystem

In the Ugandan ecosystem, I have learnt that we have not come yet come to the realization that the individual is the basic unit of society. This is where each one of us looks at what role we can play to drive the direction of our own ecosystem. As such, we have very limited private sector efforts to influence policy or support entrepreneurship. This is relative to our neighbors in Kenya and a small number of African countries that believe they can drive their ecosystems, thus leading to multiple private initiatives for ecosystem support.

How impactful has Outbox and other Tech Incubation spaces been in the development of the ecosystem in Uganda?

Tech hubs or incubation spaces are just one piece of the ecosystem. These elements have greatly contributed to aggregating the resources needed by small businesses to succeed. This ranges from social capital, access to funding opportunities, learning resources and business development services. As such, this has catalyzed the ecosystem by drawing attention to how we can enable our small businesses succeed.

One of the main problems for digital startup is funding. How has Outbox Hub moved to solve this?

We focus on making the businesses we support become investment ready. This means that they exhibit the qualities that would enable an individual take a risk with them. We thereafter support with business development and fundraising through our partner networks.

What predictions can you make about the innovation ecosystem of Uganda in the coming 5 years? And what may influence these?

Within the next five years, I believe in the following:

  • Government will get interested in tech entrepreneurship

We shall see some money being used to support tech entrepreneurs and small businesses at scale. This will be influenced by Government interests in promoting STEM and creating jobs within the ecosystem. However, this interest will be limited to offering money than to building a supporting ecosystem.

  • Civil society will self-organise to lobby

I foresee that our associations will take deliberate efforts to self organize to lobby for a better regulatory environment for small businesses and entrepreneurs. This will largely be driven by the top-down approach usually taken by policy makers. We shall want to have a voice.

  • Increase in players in general entrepreneurship

We shall see more players joining that support system of entrepreneurs, with a broad focus on all entrepreneurs. Tech will be one of the fields they associate with.

  • Increased taxes

I believe that taxes will continue to rise on basic components like infrastructure, mobile financial services, usage of data, etc. This will largely be influenced by the inability of lobby groups within the tech ecosystem to self-organise, thus letting policy makers push for taxes that are not favorable for small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Should higher education in Africa change to foster innovation? What is your recommendation?

Higher education institutions are very uniquely placed to blend academia with industry. As such, my recommendation is that each higher education institute strives to build small business and entrepreneur development centers that look to blend industry with academia. These centers are a blue print on how industry works and as such, their culture, processes and approach should be different from traditional academia. More to that, technology transfer centers that enable university research get to industry are very critical and a great asset to many universities.

Comment on innovations born in Uganda servicing the world.

This is the new norm, building businesses that can scale. In our context, this is not happening yet. As such, it is an area we should aim to improve.

What is the biggest danger in promoting innovation when basic standards, and infrastructures, are not in place?

This is a very big danger. We need to build an ecosystem and not just focus on innovations. The two move hand in hand. Without an ecosystem, a thriving environment for small businesses and entrepreneurs, we are wasting our time. We cannot attract talent, have individuals start out easily, contract with Government etc. As such, the biggest danger is that without the environment to support innovations, we are building a bridge to nowhere.

Do you think the government is/ has done enough to support tech innovations? What would you do differently if you were Minister for ICT?

No, the Government is not doing enough to promote innovations or even build a supportive ecosystem. However, most importantly is to note that we are not doing enough ourselves. The Government should just be here to regulate and create a supporting environment.  We as private sector drive economic activity and as such should coalesce with Govt to lobby for that supporting environment. We are the problem!

Nonetheless, if I were a Minister for ICT, I would do the following to create a supporting environment for tech entrepreneurship:

  • Support business development centers for small businesses and entrepreneurs

First thing I would do is use the ICT Innovation fund to support and equip various small business and entrepreneur development centers. These include tech hubs, incubation centers, Universities, and research institutes. The purpose would be to build their capacities so that they can offer low cost services to small businesses and entrepreneurs to enable them grow and become more successful. The services such centers offer ranges from legal support, certification support for standardization, contract writing, financing, etc.

  • Push for set-asides on Government contracting

I would push for a policy that requires Government to set aside a given % of all contracting to go to local small businesses and entrepreneurs. This would provide opportunities of revenue for our small businesses while building capacity at the same time.

  • Co-fund small businesses and entrepreneurs together with private investments

To encourage private investment into small businesses and entrepreneurs, I would match some private investments with government funding so as to de-risk the investment. This of-course I would drive through the small business and entrepreneur development centers we support and not through Government run entities.

What has been the role and/or impact of regulators like UCC and NITA-U and professional bodies like ICT Association of Uganda towards tech innovations and entrepreneurship?

In my opinion and from my experience, the regulators and associations are looking to learn from Civil society and our expertise on how to best build an ecosystem. As such, they have only been able to support as much as we have enabled them. For example, UCC runs an annual incubation fund that supports entrepreneurship development centers and entrepreneurs affiliated to them with funding.

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