Urban Links Africa: Why should your SME get involved?

Our Urban Links Africa project, an upcoming mission worth £2.5m that will take UK SMEs to work with six cities across Kenya and South Africa, will soon be in full flow. While we continue to accept expressions of interest from SMEs and other innovators, our SME Development Manager, Cera Wong, shares new updates on the progress of the programme and why SMEs are keen to come on board in this blog.

Since before the start of the new decade, the Connected Places Catapult team has been busy kick-starting our new Innovate UK project; Urban Links Africa. In November last year, we launched the African Cities Innovation Analysis report at our London office.

During the day, we shared key findings of the opportunities African cities offer UK innovation companies, all of which can be found in the report. As well as publishing this new piece of research, we announced our Urban Links Africa project by opening a call for expressions of interest from SMEs and innovators.

In the weeks following its launch, we’ve already seen a great deal of interest in the project from the innovation community. This is why we’re taking the African Cities Innovation Analysis report and bringing details of our Urban Links Africa project to an area near you so you can hear about it first-hand from us.

We’ve already presented both at our breakfast morning in Milton Keynes on 16 January. If you’re interested in coming to Leeds on 13 February to speak to our team about our African Cities Innovation Opportunity, you can do so by contacting us here.

As we’ve been touring both our research and the expression of interest, we’ve found that the main question SMEs have for us is ‘why should I consider Africa?’ To answer this question in a way that is meaningful for innovators, we thought we’d bat it right back to other startups and medium-sized businesses who have already made the leap into African markets and share what they got out of these previous experiences.

An SME view of Africa

As part of our work leading up to the announcement of the Urban Links Africa expression of interest, we’ve been engaging with a range of SMEs to get an idea of the value a mission like this can and should offer its participants. This engagement has been informing both the open call and its challenges, and also our knowledge of what innovators are looking to get out of missions like this.

In reaching out to companies with experience in Africa, we found the benefits the environments and ecosystems the countries offer challenger products and services were numerous. For example, BriteYellow, an AR, VR and smart sensor company helping transport and the built environment enhance user experience and unlock revenue, previously had operations in two Nigerian cities and is currently working with distribution partners in South Africa and Kenya. Fredi Nonyelu, CEO of Yellow “We see a mission like the Urban Links Africa project as a great opportunity to establish pilot customers in Kenya and South Africa, and to develop our relations with our local partners.”

Another SME, ScienceScope, is already taking advantage of the benefits the African market can offer too. By working with Skill Exchange Makerspace in South Africa, ScienceScope has been able to deploy its Internet of Things framework for classrooms to townships up and down the country. Sharing the ScienceScope story, David Crellin, Managing Director told us: “Starting in Sebokeng and working with the school and university students, we’ve already run several design workshops. Students get to use our product, the Micro:bit, and other technologies to build a prototype solution to real challenges faced in the community. In our latest activity, a group of students came up with a mobile drug dispenser to enable rural communities to collect their prescription drugs without having to travel to the centre of the township.”

Thinking about Urban Links Africa, David is quick to see its value. “The Connected Places Catapult project has the potential to enhance initiatives like ours that are already embedded in the South Africa ecosystem to deliver a scale-up of capability in the region to meet key sustainable development goals such as ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

Senior stakeholder engagements in Africa: the current progress

By way of an update on the progress of the project, between October and December last year, our teams have travelled to Kenya and South Africa to meet with senior stakeholders. We’ve been engaging with everyone from cities, tech hubs, local entrepreneurs, and government departments. These visits were an opportunity to develop and build upon top-level relationships, learn about new policy initiatives, gain insights on the landscape for tech business group, and map out potential opportunities for cross-city collaborations.

Talking about the how the series of meetings have gone down with all the stakeholders, Nadia Echchihab, our Global Commercial Business Team Lead, said: “Our project has been very well received by everyone in Africa. Our approach to innovation and methodology has been praised and people are getting excited about collaborating with us. Everyone wants to contribute.

“We’ve collated a lot of insights about past projects, current initiatives and recommendations to ensure success. The strength of our project stems from the gap we’re addressing and how we’re addressing it. When it comes to innovation, there’s generally a lack of implementation projects in Kenya and South Africa. The technology deployment phase will be crucial for the success of the project.”

We’re extremely excited to continue this work and meet the milestones ahead. The first of which is fast approaching. We’re offering SMEs the chance to apply for an initial expression of interest until February 2020 that will help us shape the final Open Call launch. The outputs of this will allow us to scout for SMEs before the final selection for deployment in African cities, where six selected SMEs will receive up to £7k per project to deploy their technology in their chosen city.

If you are an SME and would be interested to be considered for this opportunity, please sign up here.

To download your copy of The African Cities Innovation Analysis Report, follow this link.

And finally, join our SME Network to stay on top of Urban Links Africa and other SME-related news!