Close the Incubators and Accelerators, Open FabLabs and MakerSpaces instead

This article was first published on by and I’m pleased to republish it here, because it echoes a lot of what I believe Africa needs to move forward. I’ve edited and  inserted links in one section (the part that begins with ‘Biology Lab’) for additional reference.

Africa needs more people with the skills to fabricate something than additional people with oratory prowess.

Our continent has missed the industrial revolution and mass production manufacturing, but there is a new upcoming revolution based on digital manufacturing and 3D printing. It’ll be something so transformational that we can’t just afford to miss it. (More on digital manufacturing and 3D printing later)

In this post, I’m calling African investors, individuals and governments to avoid putting more money in creating new accelerators or business incubators, for the simple reason that BEFORE you can incubate or accelerate you need to have something to accelerate.

Accelerators are good ONLY if there is ENOUGH good universities and research labs around from where BUSINESS prototypes could sprout from.

Unfortunately, most of the startups I see are “idea-based” startups, not “research-based” ones. Founder’s intuition-based-startup could eventually do well in B2C areas but seldom in B2B where the best startups are based on “Insider knowledge”. Accelerating a bunch of hallucination-based startups won’t lead to anything.

A friend just shared this insight with me through “I agree with you about the importance of ‘insider knowledge’. I attended an event recently where a prominent investor said he only invests in companies where the founders idea/business is based on intimate knowledge of an industry of particular customer segment (from spending years). As for the “research based” assumption, yes, companies that come out of research (Like Google or Bose Labs or Qualcomm) usually produce ‘transformational innovation’ that leads to exceptional returns for investors. The viable tech companies that have come out of ecosystem I know were not the result of an incubator/accelerator. They (Incubators and Accelerators) are sprouting up like there is no tomorrow and collectively they have yet to produce what I’d call a viable company.“

In fact, most accelerators are Business 101 lessons place for first time entrepreneurs and recent graduates looking up to something different than their boring professors. The truth is that incubators and accelerators exist in the first place because of the failure of our business schools and universities to grasp the changes going on in the marketplace, and their inability to turn out students with the necessary entrepreneurship skills to get started.

Ideally, incubators and accelerators should be inside business schools and universities, working hand in hand with local angels investors, business leaders, mentors and ventures capitalists to commercialize promising prototypes.

Additionally, I’ve seen accelerators fail few promising startups. A startup I know got accepted into a prominent UK based accelerator. At the time of their enrollment, they were scrappy, ugly, and small but were making some money, and receiving additional interest from new clients. This early proof of concept leads them to think that they need an accelerator to go to the next step. During 6 weeks they were surrounded by “talking heads” (also called outstanding startup mentors) who knew nothing about their industry, results they pivoted to something nicer looking, and with much more ambition. To make a long story short, this startup has failed!

Believe me, I’m no saying accelerators are bad for startups, but most of them are not worth the time and the equity if they CAN NOT provide more than a chair and a table, and a bunch of talking heads! Again, they are useful ONLY if they live inside a healthy ecosystem of labs and universities which could produce something (business prototypes) to accelerate. That’s not the case of many African countries.

Therefore, my call for closing most of the accelerators and use the money to fund FabLabs, makerspaces, and hackerspaces instead.

What is a FabLab or Makerspace

A FabLab (fabrication laboratory) is a fully kitted fabrication workshop which gives everyone in the community from small children to entrepreneurs and businesses the capability to turn their ideas and concepts into reality. It’s a community inventors’ workshop where new products can be built by both businesses and individuals. The main strength of a FabLab is that users get to complete the concept-design fabricate process to make physical products. 

The environment created in a FabLab is that of peer-to-peer learning which enables anyone with or without a technical background to learn and have a space to experiment and, as far as possible, making their imagination tangible.

Why should we shift from Incubators/Accelerators mentality to Fablab, Hacherspace or Makerspace?

First we will see a blossom of creativity as more people are empowered to fabricate, to create something and experiment. We will also see in any given FabLab ecosystem hundreds and thousands of promising prototypes every year, instead of few startups. With proper equipment and management, a FabLab would enable grassroots inventions by providing a platform where communities can have access to advanced tools that can help people make products to address local needs.

Lets not forget that the personal computer revolution was started by informal Hackers communities:  Apple was established on April, 1976 to sell the Apple I personal computer kit. The kits were hand-built by Steve Wozniak and first shown to the public at the Homebrew Computer Club. The Apple I was sold as a motherboard (with CPU, RAM, and basic textual-video chips), which is less than what is today considered a complete personal computer. – Wikipedia

Lets now see how this new revolution would unfold:

“Lets say you have a weird new concept for a discrete sex toy for women or whatever and it turns out to have been a terrible idea; you just lost a couple of hours of time, $20 of silicone “ink”, some computer chips and a couple of batteries. On the other hand, if you made something really neat it can scale seamlessly to millions of 3d printers all across the world, including culturally backwards places like much of the middle east. Companies design a few models, each costing millions to develop; personal manufacturing designs tens of thousands of models to see what works.

There is the potential for the tools to reach the same level of ubiquity as a common washing machine; this could allow the tools to capture much of the economies of scale that are available to a large company that cranks out millions of copies of the same thing on a one-of-a-kind assembly line.

Personal manufacturing also harnesses economies of scale in trial-and-error.” wrote Markus G. in comment to the 2006 TED talk of Prof Neil Gerschenfeld.

This is big, and the earlier we could get away from the current accelerators models based on “how to pitch” or “how to sell”, the better we will be equipped to shift our limited resource and attention to the next Big thing: Digital manufacturing and 3 printing.

There are already few Fablabs in Africa: SA FabLab in South Africa, Fab Lab Egypt, Takoradi in Ghana, Kisumu in Kenya, FabLab Togo. You can see a complete list of FabLabs around the word here: We need more of them with full support from African investors, individuals and governments.

Photo by Bill Zimmerman

“How do you look into the future and see your (hand) in it? That’s what entrepreneurship is, putting control back into your hands and letting you create what you want to see and make a living doing it.” Said Bilal Ghalib, an Iraqi HackerSpace initiator.

“We don’t see this as someone coming in and saying “this what making is”. More often than not, the making was occuring there, before we arrived and called it « making ». So if anything, I personally see making as empowering those already on the ground, and giving them a platform to talk about the importance of what they are doing as opposed to coming in from New York or London or Paris and trying to tell people “this is what making is”...if we are to look at where hacking and making come from and at these labs and spaces growing in the future and the thinking around it, it should be about recovering what we already have. And even choosing its own name for it.” Emeka Okafor

Fablabs are an international movement that has been started in the Media Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and now there are about 35 Fab Labs around the world. Below is a video that describes what a Fab Lab is by Prof Neil Gerschenfeld, the founder of the movement.

FabLabs shouldn’t be limited to nonprofit movement or government led initiative, as some smart venture capitalist like Intellectual Ventures Lab are already investing in the huge potential of FabLab with cutting edge vertical facilities like below:

Biology Lab

Working toward disease prevention and detection by out-innovating microbes.

Chemistry Lab

It turns out you can do a lot more than just blow things up with a chemistry lab. More Chemistry lab design info here

Electronics Lab

Everything you’ll ever need to know about our electronics lab.

Food Sciences Lab

Ever cooked with a centrifuge?  Liquid nitrogen?  A homogenizer?

Machine Shop

One of the best prototyping shops on Earth, we could rebuild civilization from the ground up with these tools.

Photonics Lab

Lasers that cost more than a Ferrari that put out as much energy as a nuclear blast in a few femtoseconds.


We have 8000 tools that don’t fit in our Lab.  Need a scanning electron microscope or an ICBM?  We can have it by this afternoon.

Lets not forget that the personal computer revolution was started by informal Hackers communities:  Apple was established on April, 1976 to sell the Apple I personal computer kit. The kits were hand-built by Steve Wozniak and first shown to the public at the Homebrew Computer Club. The Apple I was sold as a motherboard (with CPU, RAM, and basic textual-video chips), which is less than what is today considered a complete personal computer. – Wikipedia


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