District Spaces and progrss.com hosted a three-day conference titled “The Future of African Cities,” a joint gathering that brought together AfriLabs’ Annual Meeting and The Coworking Summit between October 18 and October 20. The gathering attracted 250 participants and 80 collaborative and coworking hubs from across the continent to the three-day summit. The gathering was hosted at l’Université Française d’Egypte (UFE) in Cairo’s Shorouk City, The American University in Cairo‘s (AUC) New Cairo Campus and KMT House (say: kemet) in Maadi, respectively.

“Egypt is [a member] of the African Union and it has helped African countries in their fight for independence,” said UFE President Hassan Nadir in his welcome speech. “We [African states] share a number of problems. The topic of this conference addresses one of the major issues facing our nations, which is the future of our cities. Not only do we need to improve the quality of services we provide [to] our citizens, but we also have to confront the problem of the huge migration from rural to urban areas. Without innovative ideas and exerting efforts, it is doubtful that we can reach our objectives.”

The gathering discussed Africa’s urban challenges and how technology, tech hubs and collaborative spaces can help address them in innovative ways. Highlighting present trends and future goals around the world with a focus on African cities, the first day shed light on the roles of disruptive grassroots’ innovations in the transformation of cities across the borders of the participating countries.

“In Africa, there’s a huge rise in tech hubs. There are 340 active tech hubs in 93 cities all over the continent. And it isn’t just tech hubs, there are hubs that are focused on all aspects of life, like arts and music for example,” said Kamau Gachigi, co-founder and CEO of Gearbox Kenya. “The challenge [in Africa] today [is that] jobs are really limited. In Kenya, we have 40 percent unemployed; this is scary.”

“In relation to those changemakers, trying to bridge different types of creativity here, there’s arts, culture, tech and innovation. These are people who have been very much providing new forms of citizenship and social change,” said Jenny Mbaye from Senegal, who is a Lecturer in Culture and Creative Industries and an academic at the School of Arts and Social Sciences of City, University of London.

From Sweden, Mathias Antonsson from Civil Rights Defenders, Plurrify, Ushahidi, and Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), pointed out that cities are not about buildings – but they are in fact about people. And based on that, city planners must provide people with public spaces that can cater to everyone and include all categories of the community.

“You must innovate, that is the future of Africa. Otherwise, we all die,” said Nekesa Were, who joined the conversation representing iHub, Kenya. Were gave the example of education in Africa, explaining that when children are enrolled at primary schools with colorful walls adorned with paintings and drawings, they are allowed to nurture their creative side. But as they grow up, moving to high schools, the factor of creativity and innovation completely disappears. After they graduate, the city requires them to be creative once again. Were said that this is where collaborative innovative hubs come in.

Future of African Cities at UFE

Kamau Gachigi moderating a panel about the impact of hubs on creativity.

Another panel, co-created by progrss and moderated by its Managing Editor, Yasmine Nazmy, asked panelists how innovation districts are becoming the new trend for the 21st century and how they can be adapted to local contexts. Bankole Oloruntoba, co-founder at Network of Incubators and Innovators in Nigeria (NINe) and Business Incubation Manager at enspire Business Incubator explained how it is important to develop a vocabulary to explain the entrepreneurial landscape in African cities and identify potential innovation districts across the continent.

Later in the day, four speakers from North, Central and East Africa took to the stage in a roundtable-format co-created by Hivos to discuss how collaborative spaces can play a role in creating jobs for women in their local communities. Anna Ekeledo, Executive Director at AfriLabs, Linda Kamau from Kenya’s AkiraChix, Maria Daif, Director General of L’Uzine in Morocco and Mohamed Tolba from Egypt’s Over Coffee Solutions reflected on their experiences with female employment, social stigma and how to make collaborative spaces more inviting places for women to work. Ekeledo took the opportunity to express gratitude to the men who support women in pursuing her career. “I have a wonderful husband. He pushes me, he pushes me not in the kitchen, but out of it!”

At the American University in Cairo (AUC), New Cairo, the second day started with a keynote address by the AUC Dean of Business. Next, Arthur Steiner from Hivos gave a presentation about the rise of coworking movement in the region. Afterward, a panel discussion took place to discuss the integration between co-working spaces, accelerators and incubators. The panel also identified the main similarities and differences between the three. Co-created by Alliance, Ayman Ismail, founder and director of AUC’s Venture Lab moderated this panel-format segment and started by asking this question: “Can co-working spaces become incubators or run an acceleration program?”

“You must ask yourself, where do you fit into the ecosystem [and act accordingly],” added Ismail.

After that, Global Lead of Developer Circles at Facebook Mathew Terrell gave participants an overview about its products, identifying the most pressing needs and opportunities for tech hubs and collaborative spaces and where the Facebook suite of products, programs and communities can be helpful. Terrell also highlighted that Facebook is eagerly leaping towards the e-commerce and e-payment revolution by enabling transactions in Messenger.

Later in the day a session co-created by AfriLabs and moderated by Oo Nwoye, co-founder of Callbase, discussed the transformation of African cities in terms of finance and alternative finance systems. AUC V-Lab’s Ayman Ismail spoke about why mobile payment wasn’t possible in Egypt without a bank being in the picture. The panel was also joined by London-based Chloe Gueguen, Market Insights Manager at GSMA and co-founder of Fintech TWIN$ and Shola Akinlade CEO of Paystack in Nigeria.

The third day of the conference took place at the soon-to-be-launched urbantech coworking hub KMT House (say: kemet), where participants exchanged stories and reflections over a barbecue. Later in the day, some of Cairo’s most disruptive, innovative urbantech entrepreneurs took to the stage to present their products in a TED-style talk. The speakers included the founders of Bey2ollak, Cairo Hackerspace, Biogas Egypt, and Feeda&co.

Future of African Cities at KMT House

Mazen Helmy asking the panelists on the third day of “The Future of African Cities” at KMT House. Courtesy of progrss.

In the following hours, there was a discussion co-created by AfriLabs and moderated by Mazen Helmy from District Spaces, discussing how collaborative spaces can engage effectively with corporates by offering them opportunities for mutual benefit.