Interview

July 2, 2018

mLab stimulates, pulls together a fragmented ecosystem – Sheila Birgen

mLab stimulates, pulls together a fragmented ecosystem – Sheila Birgen

Sheila Birgen

Onome Amawhe
The mLab is a mobile solutions laboratory and startupaccelerator designed to help entrepreneurs andmobile developers launch and commercialize innovative mobile applications and services. It supports more than 50 entrepreneurs annually – through short or mid-term training and events – in a broader community of up to 400 individuals.

Sheila Birgen

The mLab aims to develop between 40 and 60 apps per year.  In the almost eightyears since its launch, mLab has managed to build a mobile ecosystem where none existed. From its Africa Innovation Hub in Tshwane, South Africa, the mLab initiates programs throughout Africa and is planning to create new hubs in the region.

The technology resurgence sweeping across Africa has not only connected citizens, it has also served as the foundation for the continent’s growing tech culture in its most populous countries. Birgen Sheila is one of the women in the continent leading the charge to grow technology sectors across the continent through mentorship, incubator programming and direct investment.

Team leading M: Lab’s sustainability and growth strategies for m: Lab East Africa, she is also responsible for creating a technology hub and center for digital entrepreneurship that offers incubation, developer training, applications testing and more for the growing tech ecosystem in the continent. Sheila also leads community facilitation for iHub to help African digital entrepreneurs build relationships with development agencies, entrepreneurs, investors and governments. Meet The Boss had a chat with her lately.Excerpts:

Could you describe  some of the unique innovative approaches  mLab has pioneered?

When mLab launched in Africa in 2012, there wasn’t much of a mobile ecosystem; we had to wear many hats to help stimulate and pull together a very fragmented ecosystem. Today, almost three years later, we are able to focus on specific areas where we can bring the most value and deliver on other important elements like student outreach, training, hackathons etc.

This approach has also allowed us to extend our mandate beyond just apps and has seen us supporting and building  foundations for programs that focus on women ICT entrepreneurs, digital and data focused design, open R&D and electronics. In a sense, we have retained the experimental values that  mLab was founded on by constantly adapting and optimizing.

We have also tried to learn from existing models around the world (not just Silicon Valley) and made a strategic decision to keep our model agile and evolving. This has helped us stay relevant and creates opportunities for other actors in the ecosystem.

Could you discuss taking the M:Labmodel to scale? Has the model been replicated elsewhere by the government or the private sector?

The mLab SA entered into a scaling phase only over the last six months, mainly due to our  maturing model and the local market reaching more scale in its demand for mobile innovation and enterprise development.

We are currently in the process of expanding our presence in Cape Town (Western Cape Province) and also priming the ecosystem in Kimberley (Northern Cape Province), both very different markets from each other but also from Gauteng where we have our main base.What we have learned and focussed on for our expansion is that  mLab should be unique and demand-focused in each location, not simply a clone of the previous one. We shape the models based on the current state of the ecosystem. mLab doesn’t exist in a vacuum and collaboration is very important.

So, when we enter a new market (province/town/city), we start with creating partnerships and identifying the maturity of that ecosystem. For example, if there aren’t sufficient skills to convert into startups, then the focus should be less on incubation and more on mobile skills development. This in turn impacts our partnerships, programs and target audience.

Some of our partnerships include enterprise and skills development programs with the Department of Science & Technology, Provincial Economic Development Departments in Gauteng & Northern Cape, MTN Foundation, Intel, Google Developer Groups and previously Vodacom, Ericsson, Nokia, Microsoft and Qualcomm.

What are some major challenges technology-oriented entrepreneurs face in starting and/or growing their businesses?

The biggest challenge by far is manpower. There is a massive shortage of software developers and digital designers in Africa. Coupled with the huge demand from existing industries, these skills are difficult to find and afford.Access to small and early stage capital is another obstacle in getting started.

There isn’t enough early stage investment to create sufficient MVPs (minimal viable products) to allow for a healthy pipeline that VCs can invest in. I don’t think real venture capital is limited in Africa and one hears the VCs always complaining about the deal flow. So, as crazy as it may sound, there needs to be significantly more and regular investment in failures if we have any chance of creating big successes!

How does  mLab provide a holistic solution to these challenges?

mLab SA doesn’t provide solutions per se and that’s crucial to understand in any ecosystem. The solution lies in collaboration and many different actors working together. We offer our strengths and capacity to a growing support network in South Africa and I believe we have always played a strong role at the early investment stage. mLab SA provides a fully subsidized environment where developers, designers and entrepreneurs can collaborate on projects.

These projects range from potentially large exit type opportunities to smaller businesses that can be sustained and provide a real livelihood for their founders.Not every startup needs to be a unicorn. Once these products, services or businesses reach a viable stage, they can move into the larger ecosystem and to a next stage of support through other programs like business incubators or secure longer-term investment. Or if they fail, teams can reuse and restructure them to develop a new opportunity.

How is  mLab SA trying to be inclusive in terms of the entrepreneurs reached i.e. reaching youth, people in townships, disadvantaged people, etc.?

mLab  is a strong advocate of creating opportunities among the most disadvantaged. While we have been successful in reaching the youth, we are restricted by our physical presence. This means that we serve a larger urban community than rural or township. We do however have a good number of members who have moved from other provinces, rural areas, and also other African countries to work with  mLab.

There is also a high national and provincial priority on township development, and as such we are seeing a number of township-based hubs being established. In line with our strategy of collaboration and tapping into existing programs, we are working with some of the stakeholders and supporting programs in these hubs. One of  mLab startups, Geekulcha.com, provides regular training in partnership with  innovation hubs like eKasiLabs in Ga-Rankuwa.

What impact is  mLab having on digital innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem in Africa?

It’s hard to quantify our role in the larger digital innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem. However, I believe our participation and support of local programmes, events and activities has played a role in growing the ecosystem to its current level. A good measure of growth for us lies in the fact that there are numerous activities and programmes conducted by others, which we would have previously had to host or develop independently.