Hubs and Incubators play a key role in supporting entrepreneurs and grass root initiatives. In this series we shine a light on some hubs and incubators around the world working with the International Trade Centre supporting young entrepreneurial talent.
Recently, Ye! sat down to chat with Prince Bonney, Founder of a technology and business incubation hub in Ghana. Prince explained how iCODE Hub is supporting young entrepreneurs in the technology and creative start-up communities in Ghana to create sustainable inclusive growth.
What inspired you to start iCODE and what does iCODE do?
I set up iCODE 4 years ago after I completed my final year studying IT at Ghana Technology University College. At that time, I was curious to understand why a sizeable number of IT students in Takoradi, Ghana did not continue their dream to work in the field of IT. Instead, they stopped coding and took jobs in non-IT sectors. They told me that it was mainly due to the lack of IT-related job opportunities.
iCODE was born out of the desire to help students with a background in IT to reconnect and learn skills so that they can set up a business. There is a disconnect between learning computer science and applying what you have learned practically, i.e. to design and deploy computer software for start-ups.
For the very first workshop iCODE Hub hosted, we had 57 students, for which we needed a suitable physical space to support our operation. We started renting different spaces in the community to host workshops, and gradually progressed to having a permanent base for iCODE.
Today, iCODE is a business and technology incubator, providing IT training, as well as business mentoring and incubation for start-ups. We focus on empowering our community members, who are often youth and women, to become entrepreneurs.
iCODE provides the support and resources for early stage businesses in the western region of Ghana so they can pilot their ideas; taking them from initial ideation to market. We have provided training and mentorship for over 240 start-up founders.
We also use our expertise to assist new entrepreneurs in accessing finance. Around 15% have benefited from direct government funding to expand their business, which in turn creates more employment opportunities in the wider community. The majority (around 85%) of start-ups we support get funding and business support through opportunities provided by companies iCODE has partnered with in the region.
What’s the story behind the name iCODE?
iCODE stands for Innovative Community Of Developers and Entrepreneurs. Our slogan is to meet, learn and build. We are passionate about supporting the communities where we work. Since iCODE was established in 2016, the iCODE community has grown from around 50 initial members to over 800 registered community members.
What makes your hub unique?
iCODE was the first technology and business hub established in Takoradi, a city in the western region of Ghana. We have a commitment to and connection with the communities and we support at a grassroots level. We have built a well-known brand as a go-to leader for start-up support and tailored IT training programmes.
At iCode, we also understand that digital skills are life changing and everyone should have the access to learning them. To serve our community in this regard, we provide programmes from the basics in IT and digital learning all the way to coding. For example, iCODE provides entry level training on Microsoft Office suite to help participants become more efficient in their jobs through better use of IT desktop programmes. Recently, we trained dress-makers (seamstresses) in the use of Excel to keep basic accounts in order to better understand the finances of their businesses.
Additionally, we support programme participants and entrepreneurs through the learning process by offering a strong support model. We provide peer-to-peer mentoring, focus groups and immediate support through WhatsApp group chat.
To reiterate, iCODE Hub is a community space. At the Hub, we provide co-working space, private offices for start-ups with up to 5-7 employees, as well as venues for business training and events. We also host entrepreneur meet-ups and networking events. We work with a number of partners, including MTN, who helped to provide funding for our first office. MTN staff have also volunteered their time to provide training and support on programmes as part of our outreach and CSR initiatives.
How do you differentiate your service offering from your competitors?
iCode offers specialized programmes for various community segments. One such programme, which is core to this model is the GirlCode programme. GirlCode focuses on empowering female entrepreneurs to build confidence and develop IT skills to run their own businesses. The training covers various topics, such as how to build a website, coding and digital skills, as well as social media training, to better promote their businesses. So far, we have trained over 1000 women across seven districts in the western region of Ghana through the GirlCode programme. This programme is funded by iCODE with support from the government, which has provided IT resources such as 50 computers.
We also aim to ensure youth learn IT skills and develop the ability to code from an early age, so our ICT For Kids is another important grassroots initiative. We have a number of ongoing initiatives that are powered with the support of volunteers (usually local IT students).
In addition, we offer the Code Project, a four-month incubation course that trains unskilled and unemployed people in computer programming languages and entrepreneurial skills. In addition to mentoring and coaching, we help participants build their self- confidence as entrepreneurs.
Social media channels, in particular, for the youth (20 to 30 age range) WhatsApp is a key communication channel for engaging past course participants. Radio marketing is another approach where we have found success in building awareness about iCODE and what we offer to the community. Word of mouth is also key. Previous programme participants and community members help spread the word about iCode’s services. In collaboration with sponsors, we also offer a number of courses free of charge for the community. These courses provide an opportunity for iCode to expand its outreach and network.
How has iCODE adapted to survive the current crisis?
In the wake of COVID-19, iCODE has moved its usual training programme digital, providing training on web design, digital marketing, and relevant tools, i.e. Google docs and Zoom, all virtually.
We have also launched an online incubation programme with partners, such as SNV, Kumasi Hive, MDF West Africa, Ghana Innovation Hub, Bridge for Billions. It focuses on supporting start-ups producing green products and services. Additionally, we have initiated the GrEEn innovations challenge, with funding from the European Union (EU) to support start-ups producing COVID-19 related solutions, i.e. face masks and hand sanitizer.
What is the next big programme or initiative iCODE Hub is working on that could really change the game?
We would like to expand iCODE to more communities through social franchising. The plan is to expand iCODE and set up at least four iCODE branches to reach and train more people in basic IT, coding and entrepreneurial skills. We would train franchise partners to provide key iCODE programmes, such as GirlCode, and the franchisees would follow iCODE principles to maintain integrity and quality. We are also looking at creating an investment fund to provide direct funding to start-ups.