While briefly staying in Paris, I hit up La Cantine to be a bit social in my computering endeavors. This is a coworking space that started up nearly two years ago. It’s located in the center of the town, by the Grands Boulevards Metro just off Rue Montmarte in this super cool covered alley called Passage des Panoramas. The alley is cool in its own right as it’s lined with restaurants that Parisians actually eat at and a number of enjoyable antique shops. And of course, since Paris has enacted a no smoking ban inside buildings (yeah, I know, how is it possible?), there are always any number of people sharing a smoke and having animated conversations along the alley.
As to the space, it’s quite slick and very large at about 1250 square meters. They have one open cafe area where people can just drop in for a coffee, tea, or juice and surf for free, which means you often meet some cheap, scabby tourists there. They have another area which has large tables where people can cowork together, as well as a meeting space that acts as a spillover for when events take up the coworking space. Then upstairs they have more permanent coworking spaces for people who pay a higher rent. You can view a list of the coworkers on their wiki.
There are always events happening. In the 1.5 years they’ve been open, they’ve hosted something like 40 barcamps in the space, which definitely gives me a “Wow!” moment. Then there are a number of other blogging meetups and other conferences happening daily. This is great and makes it a lively hub, but you need to know this going in to it. It’s not a library-like place. There are people talking and working to collaborate. Much more of a cafe-like atmosphere than an office one. This may bother some people who come to it. If your comprehension of French is quite basic like mine, then you can easily switch off listening to it so that it’s more of a buzz in the background, punctuated by the steam of the coffee machine making a fresh cup of “inspiration juice”, than anything else.
BarCamp Africa Paris anyone, anyone?
While here, I talked with the folks who run the place and discussed the possibility of an African BarCamp happening here as they space holds about 80 people or so for such an event. Unsurprisingly, it’s very similar to PariSoMa in approach, which is why the AfricaCodeCamp was held there.
It is interesting to see how cultural perceptions can be opposite of one another though. While Americans have no problem grabbing on to a theme surrounding Africa and having a barcamp about it, the French I’ve met are of the general idea that an African barcamp should be held in Africa. Having it in France makes little sense to them unless it is for the diaspora living here and if someone non-African were to do it, they would consider downright offensive. It’s an interesting point and I’m still trying to figure out if it has more to do with what is culturally proper or a disinterest in African affairs. If it is more the former aspect of thinking, then this is something people should really take in to consideration.
Personally, I wouldn’t be organizing it as I most unfortunately not based in Paris. I’m only hoping to plant the seeds and that one of our board members based in Paris will pick up the torch on this one and see if the prospect grows legs or is seen to have little merit.
Coworking for Incubation
On a broader level, La Cantine is interesting because it does not support itself financially. I mean, how can it at 10€ a day to work there? They’ve done quite well to raise funding from several private corporations including mega-giant telecom, Orange. These corporations are what keep the space going. It’s a similar thing for PariSoMa in San Francisco who are funded by their parent company, fabernovel. Although PariSoMa is working towards at least breaking even if not even being profitable, La Cantine seems to want to be more of a hub and networking space than anything else.
For those who have the backing, coworking is proving to be an interesting area to play around with in regards to format and the end result. But because most start out with no intention of profitability, there is little to stop someone from opening up a space somewhere in Africa and seeing what happens. Because again, while rent may be cheap, internet in Africa is not and are you going to charge someone $100-200 USD a month in a country where a technology worker may earn $400 total? Most likely not, thus making the space not profitable in a single-minded, bottom line perspective. We talked about these issues at the AricaCodeCamp and came up with little in the way of solutions except for just getting in on the ground and trying things.
There already are a couple of spaces on the continent who are indeed trying things and often they grow up organically in internet cafes. But I predict there will be a great many more as it seems that one of the things a large company wants to get out of funding a coworking space are innovative ideas that could turn in to profitable projects. Or there is the case that they want to establish a hub of solid technology workers who they can turn to for work. In the case of Africa, paying a couple of thousand dollars a month to maintain a cheap space to meet these ends is a great deal cheaper than paying a fulltime salary to some personnel staff to maintain it and not get the same kind of loyal community around the efforts. Whether it’s Africa or North America, a community is always the wiser choice as everyone takes ownership in the greater good of the enterprise.
I can’t see how companies wouldn’t want to have coworking in Africa. Obviously there is that one minor roadblock of making sure to have someone on the ground to manage it. If you don’t have that, then you’re probably up a very brown creek without a paddle and doing no one any good. But beyond that, it seems that from the ready talent in the various countries I’ve visited, a coworking space would explode for both the sponsoring entity and those working at it.