Tour This Tech Innovation Hub in the Middle of Africa

Zambia 2013

By Zoe Fox

July 30, 2013

Also published by Mashable

In early 2011, Google team members visited the University of Zambia to encourage students to participate in the Africa Android Competition. When one student asked the Google presenters what Android was — and only three people in the room knew the answer — a light bulb went off in Simunza Muyangana's head.

"I remember leaving there thinking, 'Wow, how do we correct this?'" he told Mashable two years later.

Together with Lukonga Lindunda and Silumesii Maboshe, Muyangaga began organizing technology skills workshops, such as a weekend Ruby on Rails crash course, a session on how to set up a server and a two-week workshop on developing for Android led by an out-of-town instructor.

As these meetups gained popularity, the trio decided to formally name the group BongoHive (meaning "collective of brains," derived from the local Bemba word "bongo" for brain or head).

After receiving one year of funding from the Indigo Trust and Google for Entrepreneurs, BongoHive opened its first physical home in November 2012, nestled in a house on a quiet, tree-lined street, just blocks behind one of Lusaka's busiest shopping malls. The residential home-turned-innovation-hub is hardly distinguishable from the other single-family units it's surrounded by — save the boldly painted logo on its entryway.

BongoHive, Muyangaga explains, is both the name of the community and the physical location where the community meets. The co-working space offers entrepreneurs free Internet and serves as a pre-incubator for fledging companies looking to learn the basics of accounting, market research and running a business. The founders plan to launch a paid consulting service in the coming months, which will advise companies navigating the digital world.

The community now numbers around 800 people, counting those who "like" BongoHive on Facebook, receive its newsletter and attend its different groups and classes. While the vibrant tech community in Zambia may seem isolated, it's part of a network called AfriLabs, which consists of similar institutions in countries like Kenya, Cameroon and Uganda.

"Since we're the first ones to start these hubs in our own countries, it's where we can exchange notes, help define some things and learn what to avoid from other people's mistakes," Muyangaga says.

Next month BongoHive plans to launch an entrepreneur mentorship program that will match its community with online mentors, who can offer advice via email from outside the Lusaka community.

"We are more likely to learn from Kenya than we are from South Africa, because South Africa has a much larger middle class," Muyangaga says. "When South Africa says, 'We've got this great app that's a copy of one from Silicon Valley,' we say, 'That's great, but it won't fly in Zambia because it's a totally different market and it's not likely to work here.'"

Muyangaga said one of his mantras came out of a widely circulated discussion of dead aid following TED Africa in 2007, in which Jennifer Brea wrote, "Many of Africa's best and brightest become bureaucrats or NGO workers when they should be scientists or entrepreneurs."

Given the economic history of a country like Zambia, which has spent much of its recent history in severe debt, Muyangaga says he understands why many of his countrymen seek security in their careers. However, he believes entrepreneurship will be the fix.

"Zambia has a large unemployment base, poor college and high school graduation rates, and an increasing youth population that cannot find jobs. I don't think the government will sort that out soon," Muyangaga says. "I lean towards the idea that encouraging people to start small businesses is going to sort out this problem quicker than if large corporations come in. If you've got a certain amount of passion for technology and look at problems in a way you that you weren't taught in school, you should venture into your own enterprise, and the worst that you can say is you tried."

Zoe Fox traveled to Zambia on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project

Photos

BongoHive is located in a residential neighborhood of Zambia's capital Lusaka. From the outside, you'd never know it was a hub of tech innovation.

Image: Lauren Bohn

BongoHive was founded by Lukonga Lindunda, Silumesii Maboshe and Simunza Muyangana in 2011. Currently, Lindunda is the only full-time employee, serving as director of BongoHive while the other two work on additional startups.

Image: Lauren Bohn

On a given day, about 25 people will come into BongoHive to take advantage of the free work space, collaborative environment and Internet connection. According to the founders, the BongoHive community includes some 800 members loosely affiliated with the

Image: Lauren Bohn

One of the more popular BongoHive groups, the Hackers Club, meets in the space's largest room. In addition to daily club meetings, events take place at BongoHive most nights of the week, and draw 40 people on average.

Image: Lauren Bohn

Like any great innovation hub should, BongoHive boasts a brightly painted kitchen for preparing meals.

Image: Lauren Bohn

Walking through the space, you'll notice most members have BongoHive stickers on their laptops. The BongoHive logo is the shape of a piece of honeycomb from a bee hive, overlaid with a popular geo-location pointer image.

Image: Lauren Bohn

This map of Africa, painted in the BongoHive foyer, shows all of the continent's tech innovation hubs. The map, originally created by BongoHive, has been widely circulated around the African tech community.

Image: Lauren Bohn

BongoHive's walls also serve as gallery space for artist Lawrence Chikwa's work. You can buy the local artist's work, which he updates and rotates through BongoHive. Chikwa also painted the entire building, which he lived in for a month while painting as

Image: Lauren Bohn

BongoHive's entertainment room features a TV, gaming console and comfy sofa, making it ideal for midday breaks from work.

Image: Lauren Bohn

While not one of the world's most famous cityscapes, the Lusaka skyline is painted on one of the BongoHive walls. It will be interesting to see if the tech innovation happening within the BongoHive walls helps bring more big business (and buildings) to L

Image: Lauren Bohn

The view from the desk of one member of the Hacker Club, as the group collaborates to write and evaluate code.

Image: Lauren Bohn

Two members of the Hackers Club compare notes during a daily meeting. BongoHive's collaborative environment is palpable in the club's discussion.

Image: Lauren Bohn