South Africa’s Innovation Hub Promotes Smart Industries

South Africa’s Innovation Hub Promotes Smart Industries

High-tech entrepreneurs striving to start new companies can have a hard time in sub-Saharan Africa without a little help from their friends.

For more than 10 years, the Innovation Hub — the first internationally accredited science and technology park in Southern Africa — has been a place for high-tech entrepreneurs to grow their businesses while they strive to change the world. Tenants include everything from South Africa’s national space agency to companies working to create a green economy.

Established in Gauteng province’s Tshwane, the Innovation Hub is a subsidiary of the Gauteng Growth and Development Agency (GGDA) and acts as a business incubator for the area’s knowledge-based “smart” industries.

The Innovation Hub is funded by the Gauteng Department of Economic Development though specific projects are funded in conjunction with other partners. It was conceptualized and established by the GGDA’s predecessor, Blue IQ, said McLean Sibanda, CEO of the Innovation Hub, in an AFKInsider interview.

As a high-tech business cluster, the Innovation Hub with tasked withimplementing initiatives to advance economic development and growth.

To reach that goal, the physical environment – as in other campus-like technology parks – is designed to foster collaboration among resident companies through partnerships, networking and interaction. And as a member of the International Association of Science Parks, the Hub also has access to hundreds of other science and technology parks in 50-plus countries.

The International Association of Science Parks allows members to share knowledge, ideas and innovation with like-minded colleagues from all around the globe, said Alicia Shelley, association coordination officer, in an AFKInsider interview. “Resident companies have the opportunities to connect with larger multinational companies in order to present potential solutions to their technological problems.”

These collaborative relationships provide access to training advice from a variety of experts that the South African high-tech community may not otherwise have.

The right tech mix

The right resident mix is key to the success of any science and technology park.

“We have identified useful collaborations and are exploring potential ventures with some of our fellow residents,” said Sandile Malinga, CEO of the South African National Space Agency, in an AFKInsider interview.

Established in 2010,the South African National Space Agency operates the Space Science Directorate (previously known as the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory), a national geo-space science research facility that operates an observational network in South Africa and Antarctica.

Being located at the Innovation Hub gave the space agency proximity to other innovation leaders, as well as being access to the government departments it works with, Malinga told AFKInsider.

Besides being a science and technology park, the Innovation Hub also serves as a business incubator for high-tech entrepreneurs and start-ups. Swiss-based FONGIT manages the Innovation Hub’s Maxum Business Incubator that focuses on technologies for smart cities.

Being located at the Innovation Hub as a high-tech incubator has helped businesses grow, said Kurisani Maswanganyi, managing director of Kulani Engineering.

Kulani Engineering provides multi-disciplinary professional services in engineering, infrastructure-related development and management. It targets predominantly young black female engineers for a sustainable future for Africa and beyond, using innovative technology and solutions, Maswanganyi told AFKInsider.

“Being in the engineering and technology space, the location provides us with credibility,”  Maswanganyi said. “The facilities allow us to engage with our partners and collaborators overseas without difficulty.”

Another tech cluster in the Hub involves sustainable biotechnology.

The Gauteng Bioscience Park was established at the Innovation Hub in partnership with the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and is under construction to promote biosciences.

One effort is the Moringa Oleifera Project, developed to address socioeconomic challenges facing Gauteng such as food security, climate change mitigation, poverty alleviation and job creation.

“To date, the Innovation Hub has established a 76-hectare plantation of moringa oleifera trees, realizing three cooperatives with more than 114 jobs,” Sibanda told AFKInsider. “Once grown, the leaves of the trees will be harvested and processed and sold as a food supplement with much nutritional value.”

The biosciences program is hosted in collaboration with Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and supported by the Technology Innovation Agency. The year-long program is aimed at bioscientists and  high-tech entrepreneurs, focusing on building entrepreneurial skills.

In partnership with the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, Sibanda says they have also formed the Innovation Hub Eco-Schools cluster, comprising five schools in Tembisa Area as part of an existing network of 35,000 schools in 51 countries to improve the quality of environmental learning and sustainable management of schools and communities. The goal is to help create the high-tech entrepreneurs of the future.

Driving South Africa’s Green Economy

The Gauteng “Global City Region” has a goal to be a leader in cutting edge green and sustainable economic development worldwide through its green economy program.

“A move towards a green economy in Gauteng is articulated in theGauteng Employment, Growth and Development Strategy,which guides the work of the Gauteng Growth and Development Agency and its subsidiaries,” Sibanda said.

The program is responsible for identifying, stimulating and supporting green innovations that have strong socioeconomic impacts, with the ultimate goal of being absorbed into a green economy. A big part of that strategy is clean energy technology.

In September 2013, the Hub’s Climate Innovation Center – with help from the World Bank’s InfoDev Climate Technology Program – embarked on a series of workshops to raise awareness of the green economy and the impact of climate change on marginalized communities. As one of the pillars for the Gauteng Green Economic Strategy, the Hub’s Climate Innovation Center supports innovative clean technology enterprises which build the domestic industry, increase climate resilience, reduce carbon emissions, connect to international markets and create jobs. The center also help entrepreneurs develop, transfer and deploy advanced climate technologies.

The Hub’s first joint venture is Munaca Renewable Energies between Geneva-based Energy8 SA and MUNACA Energy, a subsidiary of South Africa’s Munaca Holdings.

The Innovation Hub also launched the Solar Project in collaboration with the city of Tshwane to supply solar power systems for 50 off-grid rural homes in Winterveldt, north of Pretoria, where connection to the national grid is unlikely. Each home is provided with roof-mounted solar panels with battery storage, as well as gas stoves with an oven.

“The project is a complete household energy solution which included Solar PV generation for lighting, solar water heaters for hot water and liquefied petroleum gas stoves for cooking needs,” Sibanda said. “This standalone power generation system is ideally suited to low income communities with no connection to the national grid.”

Innovation Hub resident Kulani Engineering has shifted gears toward renewable energy.

“Ever since that decision, we have found ourselves participating more and more in the renewable energy space especially around solar photovoltaic energy through the Independent Power Producers Program of the department of energy,”  Managing Director Maswanganyi told AFKInsider.

In 2013, the company partnered with Gransolar of Spain to establish the first certified testing lab for solar panels in South Africa.

“We have since provided quality control and tested over 10,000 modules for the Lesedi and Letsatsi solar projects in the Northern Cape,” Maswanganyi said. “Through this partnership, we have managed to train and provide jobs to over 10 technicians from the local FET colleges in and around Bloemfontein.”

Empowering South Africa’s High-Tech Women

Kulani Engineering has a vision of developing black female engineers.

“There is still a huge expectation in society that a woman should remain in the confines of the kitchen and therefore I see a lot of young talented women drop out of the career because they cannot handle the pressure nor get support from their families and loved ones,” Maswanganyi said.

Kulani has created  an environment using the Innovation Hub’s connectivity that does not confine individuals to working in the office at all times.

“Technology allows us to connect to anything at anytime, anywhere in the world and therefore we encourage our employees to be flexible in how they work by using remote connectivity and cloud computing while collaborating with their peers,”  Maswanganyi said. “And this is why it is important for us to remain at the Innovation Hub.”