Frankfurt School (FS) is implementing the Technology Incubation Program – a gendered approach in Rwanda and Sudan. The program is a collaboration between the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the Korean-Africa Economic Cooperation (KOAFEC). The program aims to strengthen the young entrepreneur’s chances of success through incubation support and mentorship. The solutions to be incubated are selected via a series of hackathons where young innovators work towards developing technology solutions that address challenges in various sectors.
In preparation for the hackathons, FS held “Illumination Forums” revolving around every hackathon challenge/theme to highlight the issues to be resolved or opportunities to be exploited within a specific hackathon domain. An illumination is understood as the act or process of making something clearer or brighter. Similarly, the illumination forums were intended to allow the young tech innovators to engage with the private sector and to learn about current challenges and opportunities to pave the way for creation of contextual technology.
Every forum was steered by a moderator who was joined by 3-4 panelists who discussed and elaborated the nexus between technology and the need of digital solutions for sustainable development. The panelists were industry leaders and experts drawn from the respective hackathon domains. During the discussions, the panelists – most of them entrepreneurs themselves shared their entrepreneurship journeys highlighting the pitfalls, success factors and what they saw as the available opportunities that aspiring entrepreneurs could exploit.
The private sector actors provided an important platform and the needed stewardship to aspiring young innovators to provide the needed solutions. The approach of using experts from the private sector was deliberately chosen based on the understanding that the private sector provides an important lever to catalyze innovation. Moreover, the young innovators were expected to come up with innovative tech solutions that respond to the challenges – especially faced by the private sector. It was therefore crucial to have industry leaders with a demonstrated track record of innovation take the lead in articulating what in their opinion were the available opportunities and helping the innovators to see around corners and start envisioning their personal entrepreneurship journeys.
By sharing their personal stories, the experts were also able to inspire the inexperienced innovators into believing in themselves. In addition, using their market knowledge, they were able to help the innovators to figure out their potential competition and to determine how to position themselves in the market.
From the implementation of the illumination forums in Rwanda, we can draw the following lessons: Hackathon contenders and other ecosystem stakeholders applauded the idea of the illumination forums: Although there have been several hackathons conducted in Rwanda, the concept of illumination forums is not widespread. Many stakeholders from the startup ecosystem were very appreciative of this approach because it allows hackathon contenders the opportunity to understand exactly what is missing in the market so that they can design solutions that respond to real rather than perceived needs in the market.
Illumination forums should take place before hackathon contenders submit their applications: The illumination forums in Rwanda were organized after the hackathon contenders had already submitted their proposed solutions. The hackathon contenders would have preferred to receive the information from the panel of experts much earlier so that they could factor it in their solution design.
A higher attendance of the private sector is likely if the forums take place after official working hours: Since the intention is to attract industry experts who often have many priorities competing for their time, it is advisable to organize such forums in the evening after working hours.