Accelerators, Innovation Hubs and Creative Enterprise Centres in Freetown, Sierra Leone
A quick guide to the organisations providing support to entrepreneurs in Freetown’s small but vibrant start-up scene. Inspiring self-starters have led the way in establishing business support services so far, with another INGO due to come onboard in 2019.
Hub #1: Innovation Axis
Innovation Axis is the latest entrepreneurial centre to establish itself in Freetown and and it fills a much needed gap by providing Freetown’s start-ups with access to essential services. Incubation under experienced management is the the biggest draw for start-ups; the founders and directors, Francis Stevens George, Sheka Forna, and Walid Bahsoon, have over 75-years of collective commercial and entrepreneurial experience in Sierra Leone and Europe to offer young businesses.
Innovation Axis offers co-working space in its warehouse in Kingtom to those businesses that partner for incubation and support. Start-ups or small businesses in Sierra Leone who do not want to be formally incubated can also choose to rent desk space and get access to the internet for a small monthly fee. The leadership have taken care to incorporate some interior design features that you would expect to see in any global example of a co-working space, using local designers to create. And the centre has the space to expand if its approach proves successful and it can attract investment in the coming years.
The centre is currently incubating upwards of 10 local businesses across a diverse portfolio, which includes multimedia, technology, fashion and light manufacturing.
Hub #2: Sensi Tech Hub
Sensi Tech Hub is a social enterprise that offers ICT training and business incubation to young people. It also offers a space for members of the technology sector, including freelancers, to co-work. Since founded in 2014, Sensi have provided incubation services to over 20 businesses and have managed start-up grant funding for businesses.
To supplement their income and social impact, the Sensi team have provided technology and innovation services to INGOs such as GIZ, the World Bank and the UN Population Council.
Their mission is to create an open community space where technology and entrepreneurship intersect, to build the next generation of innovative solutions and businesses in Sierra Leone.
Hub #3: Freetown Media Centre
Over the past 9 years, The Freetown Media Centre has worked to create a space and provide resources and educational programs for audiovisual professionals. Their centre provides educational programs, via workshops and trainings on basic media production, computer skills, sound engineering and more advanced filmmaking techniques.
In July 2010, Freetown Media Centre opened a physical space for young professionals to meet, create media and begin to develop their careers as freelancers or small media business. Importantly, members are granted access to equipment, software and advice. They’re also provided with a business address so that they can make their outfit more professional, which is so important in the early days of contracting.
Although perhaps not incubating traditional businesses like Innovation Axis or Sensi Tech Hub, I have included Freetown Media Centre because they are an important contributor to the creative economy and job creation in the multimedia sector. Skills and experience gained through use of this Freetown Media Centre’s services can lead to more employment opportunities for young people by offering a range of audiovisual services to different sectors in Sierra Leone and abroad.
Hub #4: Aurora Start-up Centre
Services: Support Services; Learning & Development; Co-working
Sectors: Craft; Design
Location: West End, Freetown
Year Established: Due by September 2019
Aurora Foundation’s foray into business support services is a welcomed addition to the growing number of service providers here in Freetown. The centre is due to open sometime in September 2019 and will begin by offering a selection of business skills and support services to micro and small business (e.g. digital skills training). The plan is to start small and gradually grow out the service offering over the coming years. The space has been designed with care and showcases top homegrown creative design products that Aurora Foundation have supported over the previous years.
In a recent interview with AYV, Birta Olafsdottir from Aurora Foundation told interviewers:
‘We decided to take office space a few months ago, to set up a Start-up Centre for entrepreneurs. At the centre we will offer support, lectures and training programs in various fields, such as design and IT… My vision is to create an office space that will showcase the best of Sierra Leonean workmanship and display the variety of craft that the country has to offer’.
Birta Olafsdottir, Aurora Foundation
If the centre does focus on elements of the creative economy (fashion, design and craft), then it will be filling a gap in the city at the moment. If homegrown Sierra Leone start-ups can service a domestic and export market, then income will flow in and more jobs will be created as a result.
So there you have it, an overview of Freetown’s burgeoning start-up scene and the self-starters who have delivered change in this country with limited support.
What more can Freetown City Council and the Government do to support start-ups and small businesses? Here’s some ideas:
- Focus on bringing down the cost of space: Rental of basic office space in Freetown can be up to $4,000 for 12-months paid in advance; this is a prohibitive requirement for start-ups that have very little capital. This barrier can be reduced by government stepping in to fix a broken market and offering space in under-utilised government buildings at a lower monthly rate for start-ups and small businesses. Even better, Freetown City Council and the Government of Sierra Leone could use city planning and their estate to focus on clustering new businesses in a part of Freetown.
- Focus on bringing down the cost of access to essential infrastructure: The cost, speed and capping of data services by telecoms providers in Sierra Leone is prohibitive to business growth, particularly for tech and multimedia businesses. The government needs to encourage existing telecoms providers to introduce business services, or use state-owned SierraTel to offer business-friendly services that meet business customers needs.
This article was updated on 22 July 2019 to include updated information and images from Aurora Foundation.
I’m currently working as an independent consultant in Sierra Leone. I’ve recently advised the Government of Sierra Leone’s Department for Science, Technology and Innovation (DSTI) and the British Council on growing digital and creative services and businesses in Sierra Leone. I previously worked in innovation and digital technologies in the UK for PwC and a government-funded business support hub. Have I missed your accelerator, hub or centre out? Have you got an interest in this topic? Reach out to me on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.