Silicon South Africa: Google Launches Incubator For African Startups

Google has announced that it will be launching a startup incubator in Cape Town, South Africa, called Umbono. The incubator aims to support the local tech ecosystem in South Africa by offering local startups access to seed capital, Google mentorship, and angel investors.

Umbono will focus on web and mobile-based startups building solutions to local problems, which also have regional appeal, in an effort to help them “transform their ideas into companies”, according to Google SA country manager Luke Mckend. Fittingly, “umbono” happens to be the very Zulu word for “vision” or “idea”.

The South African incubator will be structured as a 6-month program, in which 5 startups chosen by Umbono’s panel of angel investors and Google representatives will receive a seed investment of $25K to $50K. The teams will also have access to Umbono’s free office space, bandwidth, and a mentorship network of Google experts, ready to advise the startups on issues from “product design and commercialization to legal incorporation and valuation”, Google said of Umbono in its announcement.

Local bandwidth is expensive in Cape Town — so this will likely be very attractive to young tech startups in South Africa. Not to mention the added bonus of $25K.

Umbono’s home city of Cape Town, located on the southwestern shore of South Africa, has for years been attempting to position itself as a hub of innovation and technology in subsaharan Africa. The Cape IT Initiative, a non-profit organization dedicated to developing information and communications technology in South Africa, has been lobbying Google (and others) to locate their incubators in Cape Town for some time.

Along with Cape IT, Cape Town is home to Silicon Cape, a similar initiative aimed at fostering tech entrepreneurship in South Africa, as well as veteran incubators, like the highly-regarded, 10-year-old Bandwidth Barn.

South Africa has also produced its fair share of successful (and well-funded) startups, like Yola, a website creator that has raised $25 million, MXit, an instant messaging app with over 27 million subscribers, and Twangoo, a group buying club, which was acquired by Groupon earlier this year — to name a few. And now the country’s startup ecosystem adds another notch to its belt by luring Google’s business development talent to its shores.

When I asked Umbono spokeswoman Johanna Kollar about why Google chose South Africa and whether or not it has plans for incubators elsewhere in Africa, she told me that, at this point, Umbono is a pilot project. The incubator will test the African waters, and if the model proves to be viable — and beneficial — Google will look to expand into other emerging markets.

“South Africa is recognized as one of the innovation leaders on the continent, particularly with tech startups,” she said, “so we are enthusiastic about the possibilities here”.