How To Make The Incubators And Accelerators Model Work In Botswana

Over the last few years, spurred on by the need to support technology startups as it aims to transition from a "resource-based" to a "knowledge-based" economy, from contributions from both the public and private sector, several startup incubators and accelerators have been set up in the country, especially in the capital Gaborone. Despite this commendable support for entrepreneurial growth which the country desperately needs, the impact of these incubators and accelerators is still to be felt or seen. 

Botswana is not the only country where incubator and accelerator programs are failing to achieve their mandates that include fostering innovation, aiding businesses that will contribute to job creation, and attracting investments for those businesses, etc. Across Africa and even Europe where the programs have been ongoing for much longer than here, there are still challenges of how to make them more efficient and several learnings can be acquired from these challenges to greatly improve the Botswana model.

The first issue to address is the disconnect between the mandate of incubators and accelerators and what metrics are currently being used as Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for the programs. Instead of using the aforementioned metrics of innovation and job creation of startups being supported by accelerators and incubators, much focus and measure of success seem to be directed at how many entrepreneurs come in and graduate out of these programs.

This lack of alignment with the main mandate of these programs boils down to the fact that incubators and accelerators are being used as drivers of PR for the brands supporting them and parading "graduates" is pretty good PR. This is allowed to happen because the barriers to entry for starting these programs are pretty low and also the fact that there is no regulatory framework to make them align to their mandate. Any corporate which can provide office space can launch their own incubator accelerator program without worrying about justifying its impact to any authority.

Corporates are of course not the only ones to blame for this lack of consideration for the mandate of incubators and accelerators. The entrepreneurs using these spaces should also have some blame directed their way. Many fail to even understand why they are using these spaces which makes them asking for accountability from the sponsoring corporates particularly difficult. The concentration of these programs in one part of the country, being the south particularly the capital Gaborone, is also another factor that is severely affecting the potential impact that these programs can have.

With Botswana having huge unemployment rates which will not get better any time soon in light of the economic stagnancy caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for efficient incubator and accelerator programs that will boost entrepreneurial activity and contribute significantly to job creation cannot be overstated enough. However, if the programs are to be run like they currently are, their existence will prove to be of very little benefit.

To improve their efficiency,  the first issue to be addressed will have to be how the corporates and government departments running these programs can better align them to serve their main mandate of fostering innovation and job creation instead of, intentionally or unintentionally, using them as good PR tools

Data-driven market analysis of what kind of entrepreneurial support can efficiently accelerate the growth of the beneficiaries of these spaces will go a long way in being able to offer tailor-made support for the beneficiaries. Through analysis, sponsoring corporates and government can figure out whether startup beneficiaries using these programs need access to mentorship, funding, access to markets, etc, and be able to provide these as necessary. Accelerators and incubators shouldn't be relegated to merely working spaces with good WiFi and air conditioning.

Another factor that can also go a long way in improving the efficiency of these programs is by doing a thorough and minute scrutinization of the entrepreneurs who are allowed into the programs. Nowadays, the trend seems to be that most accelerators and incubators are reserved for youth entrepreneurs. This discrimination means that non-youth startup entrepreneurs who might also have impactful innovations which can use the accelerator/incubator set up to be able to scale and grow are unable to do so. Admittance into these programs shouldn't be grounded on the age of the entrepreneur but on the merit of their idea or innovation.

An efficient regulatory framework is another way to make incubators and accelerators better serve their mandate. It is a regulatory framework that will push sponsoring corporates to rope in qualified, knowledgeable, and skilled staff to run these programs. Through these well-equipped individuals, entrepreneurs can then benefit from their skills and knowledge to then be able to develop their idea or innovation into a market-ready product that will have a far-reaching impact and eventually contribute to the country's economic growth.

There is no denying the potential that incubator and accelerator programs hold for entrepreneurial development and growth in Botswana. However, for this potential to be fully realized, there has to be a thorough restructuring of these programs to better align them to that mandate of entrepreneurial development and growth. International programs like the YCombinator are proof of the impact that can be achieved by incubator and accelerator programs if they are well-designed and run. Taking lessons from these can go a long way in building the same structures for Botswana startup entrepreneurs.

A synergy point can only be reached if there is proper cooperation between the public and private entities running these programs, the entrepreneurs who are beneficiaries of the programs as well as the regulators and overseers from government. Through this tripartite, accelerators and incubators like the Botswana Innovation Hub, IED Business Incubator, and the Stanbic Bank Acceler8, to mention a few, can better facilitate innovation in Botswana by nurturing and growing the huge but unrealized entrepreneurial potential that the country holds.

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