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Madagascar innovation hub attracts island techies

Madagascar , 30 Oct 2012

Madagascar innovation hub attracts island techies

The island of Madagascar is a well-known environmental and tourist destination. But a committed tech junkies are hoping to make the nation renowned for being a centre for innovation and incubation.

Started just over a year ago, the initiative known as ‘Habaka’ is located in the capital city of Antananarivo. It was formed through the combined efforts of the city’s blogging and freelance ICT community.

“It emerged from the acknowledgment that there’s a lot that ICT can do in this country for solving issues as well as generating business values. Yet alone it would be hard for us to achieve big impacts,” explains founding member Hery Zo Rakotondramanana

According to Rakotondramanana, the word Habaka means space in the context of air or clouds, and it is an apt description for an organisation that has already seen some fluidity and changes in its short existence.

Initially known as Malagasy i-Hub, the innovation space kicked off by organising a BarCamp, a network of user-generated conferences, with the international French Radio for a broadcast of one of their ICT shows before moving onto becoming the more formalised not-for-profit organisation that is Habaka.

Habaka is based upon three central pillars, namely coworking, ICT events and finally research and development. The coworking aspect includes both a physical space as well as an online community where techies and programmers can connect, share and work together.

“We plan to host ICT events like conferences and training sessions with the goals being to develop high level networking opportunities for the entrepreneurs as well as to develop capacity in the field of ICT,” says Rakotondramanana.

Habaka’s research and development arm will be primarily focused on developing solutions to the issues facing Malagasy society with an emphasis on mobile applications. It is in the mobile application and solution space that Rakotondramanana and his fellow Malagasy innovators will be most eager to make headway as the African country moves into its next stage of development.

Madagascar has a relatively small population of around 20 million inhabitants with 45% of the population under the age of 15.

While internet penetration remains quite low, mobile penetration rates are at over 30% and climbing fast with a number of operators offering their services on the island. It is into this young and fast moving population that Habaka must tap into going forward as it searches for the answers to Madagascar’s challenges.

Operating in such a young and arguably still maturing ICT environment presents some unique challenges, including, amongst others, the lack of a large number of trained IT professional as well as a significant dearth of country specific content.

“One of the other challenges is that there are a lot of freelancers in the ICT field in Madagascar and so one of the goals of Habaka is to put them in some kind of clusters/formal entities where it’ll be easier to setup programs for capacity building. However, we believe that these people are the main drivers of change here and once they’re given the necessary environment to develop projects, they can initiate projects that solve actual issues or address specific business needs,” says Rakotondramanana.

Due to the shift to the Habaka concept, the hub has faced some issues in finalising its formal structures as well as completing the design and furnishing of the formal incubation space. The space will initially be around 350 square feet but there is room to grow as it will be located inside of a 3,500 square feet compound.

Once the structural and organisational issues are complete what will follow is the appointment of full-time staff to oversee Habaka and its membership drive.

“There are ten of us working on the project at the moment and we haven’t opened yet memberships to the wider community just yet. This is because we are still finalising on all the administrative things and internal organisation however we plan to start welcoming members in early 2013,” confirms Rakotondramanana.

A sign of the bright future that awaits Habaka and the wider Malagasy ICT community is the fact that there are already three entrepreneurs already working at the Habaka space. They are focused on online community management as well as application development. In addition, Habaka is also involved in a national training project for veterinarians and this project will be used as a pilot for the establishment of a crowdsourcing platform for any kind of information that might be needed in Madagascar.

Madagascar and Habaka are clearly on the fast-track to becoming a source of ICT innovation and entrepreneurship on the African and global scene and it’s only a matter of time before the idea palm trees and beaches gave way to that of techies and ground-breaking solutions.

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