Arts + Culture

Afropreneurs: How These Coworking Spaces Navigate Ghana's Startup Ecosystem

The growth of Ghana’s startup community and expansion of resources signals that the Black Stars are on the rise.

When Makafui Ayimey left his job as communications manager to launch his startup, Accra Goods Market, searching for an office space in a city of sky-high rents seemed daunting. “I wanted an affordable space, and the ability to network with like-minded entrepreneurs,” he says. But with the average monthly office rent in Accra hovering around $1.63 per square foot—a price comparable to office rents in Atlanta and Dallas—securing a space seemed near impossible.

In Workshed, a new co-working space off of Spintex Road, one of the capital’s major highways, he found a solution. With desk space, meeting rooms, happy hours, and other amenities, Workshed’s ambience (and flexible payment plan) quickly drew him in.

Accra Goods Market, a pop-up open-air market showcasing the best of Ghanaian food, fashion and design, is one of a growing number of startups opting for the perks of flexibility and camaraderie of a shared office space.

Andrew Bimpong and Richard Bempong, co-founders of Workshed, came up with the concept in the process of looking for an office space themselves. “As we looked for spaces to kick off our business, we stumbled across Deskhub, a coworking space in San Francisco. The concept was new to us, but appealing so we put work on our fashion startup on hold to research what it would take to set up our own co-working space,” Andrew explains. “Other game leaders like WeWork pushed us further into developing the concept which was and is new in our part of the world.”

Like many entrepreneurs, the two business partners struggled with access to capital and access to space. With Workshed, they strive to create an enabling environment for Ghana’s nascent startups by building a community that emphasizes collaboration and dialogue.

Co-working, a trend pioneered by companies like WeWork, is a trend common in major American cities in New York or San Francisco. Across Africa, it remains a new concept. However, as investment across the continent picks up steam, more startups are taking advantage of collaborative workplaces. According to data firm Social Workplaces, in 2013, there were only 24 coworking spaces across the continent. By 2015, the number grew up to 250. In Accra, there are over five today. They range from collaborative workspaces like Workshed to more full-fledged hubs and incubators with an even more expansive range of services.

Incubators and Hubs: The Next Frontier?

With over six companies using its facilities, Workshed is poised to follow the growth of older Ghanaian co-working spaces like iSpace and Impact Hub Accra, which have expanded their capacities as leading innovation labs for Accra’s burgeoning startup community.

iSpace founder Kwesi Eyison describes the hub as a “solutions provider” rather than a simple work space. “Our space is open 24 hours as we understand the demand patterns of our members,” he stresses. “We focus heavenly on equipping entrepreneurs with all the necessary resources beyond just a work space or Internet. We offer trainings and focus less on events such as hackathons, and more on bringing products to market as well as providing programs [including tech business and skills development].

Founded in 2013, iSpace focuses on building Ghana’s ecosystem by building the capacity of entrepreneurs building ventures in a system where government support and access to finance can be hard to come by. In just four years of operation, iSpace has hosted a wide range of events from "Social Impact Week" to "Hack4Good" and a "Global Entrepreneurs Week" in collaboration with Microsoft. The hub also regularly hosts workshops and speaker series aimed at teaching the fundamentals of business like product design and branding. One of iSpace’s latest initiatives, “Unlocking Women and Technology” hopes to encourage more Ghanaian women to enter the tech space.

Launched around the same time, Impact Hub Accra, follows the model of the larger Impact Hub Network, a self-described “social enterprise community center” of over 11,000 global entrepreneurs. “At Impact Hub Accra, we believe in ‘accelerated serendipity’ and building connections that bring sometimes unlikely partners together for collaborative action,” Emily Sheldon, the Hub’s director of health innovation, says. With the support of funding from Merck, Sheldon joined the Hub in 2016 to nurture the development startup network focused on health and entrepreneurship. A similar program focused on financial inclusion is in the works. In addition to these targeted sector-specific programs, Impact Hub Accra also offers networking mixers, pitch events, and “community huddles” to help entrepreneurs find co-founders, startup teams to find mentors, and funders to discover promising companies.

However, among all other players in Ghana’s startup ecosystem, Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) is the gold standard. As the non-profit arm of San Francisco-based Meltwater Group, MEST has deep pockets: in just eight years of operation, it has invested over $20 million in entrepreneur training and seed funding for ventures it supports. These investments have already paid off. meQasa, a web and mobile-based real estate platform incubated by MEST, recently raised over $500,000 while Asoriba, a fintech startup focused on improving church administration, was named Africa’s best startup at Seedstars Africa. The incubator recently announced plans to build on its success in Ghana by expanding to Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa.

Growing Opportunities

Tech companies worldwide may find their funding slowing down, but investment in African startups continues to grow. Kenya, the “Silicon Savannah,” Nigeria and South Africa attract the majority of funding; however, the growth of Ghana’s startup community and expansion of resources signals that the Black Stars are on the rise. Despite a shaky economy during the Mahama years, Ghana’s reputation for political stability is likely to draw further support for local entrepreneurs.

Although the amount of money available to these startups may be small relative to American or European standards, the expanding continuum of resources for Ghanaian entrepreneurs from new spaces like Workshed to more established behemoths like MEST points to the untapped potential for the Ghanaian startup ecosystem.

Akinyi Ochieng is a writer and researcher of Gambian and Kenyan origin who studies the culture and politics of emerging markets. You can follow her on Twitter @kikiochieng and her blog.

All photos courtesy of Remi Dada

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