Technopreneur turns skill into money

Barbara Birungi, the founder and director of Hive Colab, studies a document. Photo by PAUL NJUGUNA

What you need to know:

Hive Colab is a start-up incubator based at Kanjokya Street in Kampala, Uganda. Paul Njuguna spoke to Barbara Birungi, the founder and director, on how the lab is aiding in shaping up Uganda’s start-up landscape

When did you set up ‘The Hive Colab’ and what triggered the idea? Why the words, ‘Hive Colab’?
Hive Colab was set up in July 2010. It was triggered by the large number of unemployed but skilled tech graduates coming out of our universities. Our system trains job seekers and not job creators, thus regardless of many young people having skills to create their own jobs, many were out there looking for work.
We saw an opportunity to support them create their own jobs and for others. We wanted a space that solves a young business’ challenges of no money for rent; Internet, business acumen and lack of know-how to turn skill into money. We wanted to create a community of co-creators, people who share ideas and work together to build the nation, hence the name Hive Colab.
Looking at how bees work in a hive, it’s never in isolation, they work together and regardless of how small they are, they are able to build enormous anthills. There is power in collaboration when creating.

How has been the journey considering that you are the pioneer among incubators from the Ugandan market?
When we had just started out, there was hardly a tech ecosystem. Everyone was working in isolation and there was no connection point. Over the years, we have seen a development of a tech system, other players seeing the importance of what we are trying to build and thus joining in the journey. Government is also slowly catching on. Young people were not focused on building their own companies or quitting as soon as things did not work out exactly as they had hoped, otherwise at the mention of job, they would jump. But today, young people are working hard and sticking it out. Because of this, we are seeing an increase in successful tech start-ups in Uganda.

Would you consider the Hive Colab as an incubator and an accelerator? What are some of your ‘babies’ that have had major breakthroughs in the market?
I consider us both. We are an accelerator and incubator. Although we are not yet investing cash into the businesses we work with, we put in lots of other resources to start-ups for three months before we invite them into our incubation.
Our acceleration programme offers idea stage businesses a chance to set themselves and understand the start-up life cycle, set realistic goals and targets before we offer them mentorship, Technical and business advice, space and access to our list of investors and funders. We also act as a co-working space. Some of our startups include: Access Mobile, Thinvoid, Airsave, Brainshare, Crystal Technologies, Yoza, among others.

What does it take to be part of the Hive Colab? Let’s say, I have this excellent idea that I think is the next game changer in ICT. How can you help me? And do you only take up ICT projects?
We have an application form that a potential client fills. Once we have that, we discuss with the team and invite some for a chat at the hub. After this, we will either invite you into the accelerator (which runs two times a year) or ask you to work on a few things before you can join us. Once you have done that, we take it from there. We mainly work with ICT start-ups.
The help we offer depends on the application form and the coffee chat we have with the start-up. It ranges from supporting you refine your business model, incorporate, put together a team, create a prototype and financing.

What is the average incubation time for any given company? Are there cases where incubation runs beyond the average period?
The average incubation time for a start-up is three years. We increased it from one year to three years. No start-up has run beyond this time.

What do you do to ensure that you create a cycle of start-ups joining the lab and leaving successfully? What has been your success rate? Are there failures?
We offer ideation boot camps where we encourage young people to create businesses and these funnel new entrants into the space. Our training ensures that by three years, they are grown enough not to need us. I would say we have enjoyed a 50/50 success - failure rate. Not sure I want to comment on the failure.

Do you consider enjoying an equity stake in the incubates?
In my thinking, you probably have put in a lot of time and resources in developing these companies. An equity stake would not be bad for you.
Due to the purpose of starting up Hive Colab and our nature of incorporation, we do not take equity from our incubates.

How do you engage University students to capture the ideas?
We do this through training and acceleration of ideas coming out of third/fourth year students. We are reaching out to the students before they start working on their projects, such that instead of building an idea for graduation, why not build a viable prototype that will support their graduation and be a business right after they graduate?

For companies that are not generating revenue, how do they cope having to pay their rentals of the co - shared working space?
We have grace periods and a future loan. They do not have to think about paying us at that time but do so when they can. We still support them through the tough times.

The problem in Uganda today, we are comfortable buying a tomato from downtown at Shs 200 and selling it at Kamwokya for Shs300. Call it basic value addition, but I would call it lack of innovation. What do you think is lacking to spark a start-up revolution in Uganda?
Our education system hinders creativity, free thinking and innovative minds. But Ugandans are doing well despite these limitations or most are innovating nevertheless. I would not say there is lack of innovation spark in Uganda but there are many hindrances to innovation that cause the start-ups to either never take off or fail along the way. Our support system and belief in start-ups is a hindrance itself. Government incentivisation is also almost non-existent. The thriving business community in Uganda is not winning with the fight for favourable business policy for new entrants.

Looking at the Ugandan start-up scene, where do you think we are compared to other counterparts in the region such as Kenya and Rwanda?
A lot of things come into play before you can rate Uganda compared to the other EA countries especially when it comes to technology innovation. In Rwanda, which is mushrooming at rocket speed with start-ups, you will find a support system right from infrastructure, local investment and their government putting in lots of resources. Kenya has every mother of world tech giant setting up camp and little of any of that in Uganda.

Where do you see the start-up scene in the next 5 to 10 years given that incubators such as the Mara Launch Pad and the Hub Kampala have already exited?
In the next five to 10 years, we will have more young people creating their own jobs and for others. We shall continue to grow and more players will come into the space.