Silicon Valley in the heart of Africa
Tanzania’s innovation hub challenges global stereotypes
When I first met James Nkunda, just over 10 years ago, he bubbled with energy and had a wild dream of placing his hometown Mwanza on the Venture Capital map and with that, divert many millions of investment dollars away from European and American cities. Mwanza, located on the southern shores of Lake Victoria, sits in the center of East Africa with easy access to Kampala (Uganda), Nairobi (Kenya), Dar es Salam (Tanzania), and Kigali (Rwanda).
Nkunda worked at Wakanda Mining, one of the largest gold mines in the area, and was frustrated with how many ideas were discussed among his colleagues and friends, but never got anywhere due to lack of funds, facilities to research and experiment, and access to electricity and the internet. One day he bumped into Brian Todd, the then COO, outside one of the disused workshop buildings. Taking the opportunity, he asked if they couldn’t use the old building to test new ideas and create new solutions.
Fast forward 12 years, and the old workshop building is now the center of a high-tech corporate campus. It has research labs from the region’s universities, affiliations with MIT, Stanford, and Oxford, and the region’s biggest companies have funded its own VC entity. The EU has opened a satellite patent office in one of the wings, and China has a permanent team of metallurgical scientists based there.
Todd, now CEO of Wakanda Mining and on the board of Wakanda Innovation, says with pride: “When we allowed our staff time and opportunity to tinker with the equipment they used every day, we opened a fountain of creativity and innovation happened all around us. We gained efficiencies and accidents became less frequent.” Nkunda continues the story: “The big breakthrough came when we opened it up for all people living around here. We now have 23 companies providing African solutions for African problems.”
“Everyone is creative,” says Todd, “and we as companies need to give our people – and the local community that we depend on – the opportunity to think, experiment, test, fail, and try again. Even in the heart of Africa!”
Warning: Hazardous thinking at work
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