15 December 2000

Top Story

New types of internet-connected business centres are springing up across the continent. News Update has heard of plans for Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe and Teltec (in partnership with Hewlett Packard) has ambitious plans for new openings. We describe the concepts behind these new ventures and Mark Davies of BusyInternet in Ghana describes the plans for his new centre.

UK serviced office spaces provide a useful comparative blueprint for the concepts underlying this new generation of business centres in Africa. One of the UK’s operators in this field (Regalian) even has a toehold on the continent. They came out of a business need for space that was "easy-in/easy-out" (no long lease commitments) and where the different spaces in a building could allow a business to grow from the equivalent of a spacious cupboard to about 1000 sq ft. As the market became more sophisticated, these serviced spaces became themed: some would attract media people, others ICT companies and yet others designers. They were often nicely designed and situated in interesting redundant industrial buildings.

In the competitive London market, operators were able to charge a premium for offering services: immediate phone connection, office services and a bookable meeting room. To make a return on these services in the UK requires a space of between 30-40,000 sq ft. They encourage "inter-trading": a media production company will use a post-production company in the same building. The larger premises have a cafe that encourages informal meeting between those housed in them. They will also often contain a networking element where meetings are arranged between individuals and companies. Their users have come a wide range of sectors but in this context, two of the main (overlapping) areas are of interest: the media and creative industries and those who freelance for a living. In a completely different context, UK universities have teamed with outside investors to create science parks, which were based on the idea of commercialising university science research. Finally before the boom went bust, many companies were offering "incubator centres" (packages of space, finance and expertise) to internet start-ups.

So how will these ideas play out in Africa? The single biggest advantage must surely be the ability to get access to a reasonably reliable supply of bandwidth. They will also provide credibility and profile for a range of ICT operators who are often hard to find in African cities. The example below combines serviced office space with an open access service. The downside? The markets are not large and with the dominance of state telcos, there is not always the same layer of professional freelance people found elsewhere. The key business focus? Balancing the cost of servicing against what the users will pay. Renting space can be easy. Providing services that satisfy at a price that makes a reasonable return is very demanding. We look forward to reporting on the progress of these exciting new ventures.

Mark Davies describes his plans for the new centre in Accra:

BusyInternet Ghana Ltd, a partnership between Ghanaian investors and a US-based startup, announced last week that Accra had been chosen as the site of the first in a series of Internet centers across Africa.BusyInternet signed a ten year lease on a 1,200sqmeters industrial building in the heart of the city, and will spend the next five months converting the factory into a high-tech facility, opening in August.

Half of each center will be dedicated to public Internet access, with 100 flat-screen terminals on the ground floor. "We want to develop a look so that people feel they’ve walked into a totally new experience. We’ll have tremendous outreach potential to young internet enthusiasts" says Mark Davies, the founder. "This is an important part of what we’re trying to do—to create a social environment that other organizations are seeking access to."

In addition to the public access, there will be a 60-seat learning center, where workshops and seminars can take place on a fast internet connection. "More and more public and private training will be provided through the medium of computers and the web, and we want to meet that demand" Davies adds.

The entire top-floor of the old factory will be available to small IT-related organizations and businesses. "This is where we hope to see the really interesting things happen". Davies, who co-founded FirstTuesday in London in 1998, believes firmly that it’s the social networking and exchange of advice and ideas that accelerates business development in this sector, "this is a natural extension of the FirstTuesday concept". Incubation in these early emerging markets isn’t the same as the US, where he worked with IdeaLab!, the mother of all incubators, "it’s about getting dependable power, fast connections and access to other practitioners. Every country should have a center that creates a focal point for ideas and energy about these new technologies and learning and business opportunities. That’s what the Dot Force should be promoting."

"Ghana is particularly interesting to us.With the new political leadership that is much more business-focused, we think Ghana has a shot at becoming an IT hub for West Africa (it’s the only sub-saharan country outside South Africa that has a fiber backbone installed). There are a lot of smart and ambitious people around who are really keen to push this sector. It will be interesting to see how fast this industry develops. We want to facilitate that, and see Ghana participate regionally and globally."

BusyInternet has been able to attract a majority investment from within Ghana and hopes to act more as a franchise opportunity, spreading to other capital cities across Africa in the next few years." We’ve already got web developers booking space, and we’ve got a number of international organizations interested in running workshops out of the center. We want to take the headache out of providing internet-based learning - we’re more about customer service than program development. There are loads of programs out there already; we just want to give them the platform they need to succeed. And with an international brand, we hope to create a soft landing in all our markets for anyone, businesses or non-profits, seeking the right facilities for the new technology-based business/learning environment."

News Update is a free e-letter produced by Balancing Act that covers African internet content and infrastructure developments, It goes out to government, the private sector, education and NGOs. To subscribe, send a message saying "I want to subscribe" to