3.5 years later, what has the iHub done?

Becky Wanjiku sits on the iHub Advisory Board with me, and started a discussion on the iHub, asking “What has the iHub Achieved?“. Her main takeaway point being that the iHub is a platform, and it’s what YOU do with it that is important. T

he iHub started in March 2010, so it’s been about 3.5 years and a lot has happened here in the intervening years. Many people ask me, “so, what has the iHub done?” The best way I could think of to answer that is to just list as much as I could think of, so here’s a rather exhaustive list, though I’m sure that I’m missing some things.

Why Tech Hubs in Africa Exist

Nairobi tech community working at the iHub, circa 2011

Nairobi tech community working at the iHub, circa 2011


Before I get into that though, maybe a framing on why tech hubs exist is important. They’re not just there for startups, in fact our thoughts on incubation and products going back to 2010 was just pre-incubation and connecting to other businesses and investors. Places like the iHub exist to connect this community together, while we get involved in other gaps that exist in the market (UX, incubation, research, etc), these are just part of providing a place where serendipity happens for those who are involved across the network.

These spaces are more than just nurturing talented entrepreneurs, and to not see that means you’re missing the bigger picture on why they exist. They’re not only about entrepreneurs, though we have seen some of them grow from nothing to 40-person orgs that run across multiple countries.

The tech hubs in Africa are more than just places focused on products, much of what goes on is about connecting the people within the tech community in that area to each other and to the greater global industry. For instance, we started Pivot in East Africa, an annual event that does two things: First, it created a culture where the entrepreneurs learned how to pitch their products. Second, it gave a reason for local and global investors and media to come and see what’s going on. Both funding and media coverage have resulted.

Another example is the connecting of global tech companies to local developers, the training that comes out of it for everyone from network operators to Android devs. Google, Samsung and Intel all play strongly in that space.

Some work at increasing the viability and skillsets of freelancers. Whether they’re web designers or PHP software engineers increasing their understanding of how to setup a company, know what IP law is about, take training on project management or quality assurance testing – these all add up to a community that is evolving and becoming more professional.

Those are just a few of the things that tech hubs do across Africa. I can speak for the iHub in Kenya, but know that there are others such as ccHub in Nigeria, Banta Labs in Senegal, ActivSpaces in Cameroon and the other 19 tech hubs in the Afrilabs network are all doing amazing things that create a base for new innovative products, services and models to grow out of. There are new models for ecosystem development around tech in Africa revolving around these technology hubs that are, and will breed, more innovation over time.

New initiatives and organizations from the iHub:

m:lab – first tech incubator in Kenya (2011)
Mobile testing room – all the tablets and phones from the manufacturers (2011)
iHub Research – tech focused research arm (2011)
UX Lab – first user experience lab in East Africa (2012)
iHub Consulting – an effort to connect freelancers to training and businesses (2012)
Savannah Fund – a funding and accelerator program (2012)
Cluster – first open supercomputer cluster in East Africa (2013)
Gearbox – an open makerspace for rapid prototyping (2013)
Code FC – iHub Football Club
Volunteer Network team – the iHub internet network was setup, and is run by, volunteers

Startups who met, work, or started in the iHub:

BitYarn
NikoHapa
KopoKopo
M-Farm
BRCK
Eneza Education
Ma3Route
Uhasibu
Fomobi
Whive
Zege Technologies
Afroes Games
iDaktari
MedAfrica
SleepOut
M-shop
Angani.co
Wezatele
AkiraChix
Upstart Africa
Juakali
CrowdPesa
Elimu
iCow
Sprint Interactive
Lipisha
6 Degrees / The Phone book
Pesatalk
Skoobox
Waabeh
MamaTele
RevWebolution
Smart Blackboard – Mukeli Mobile

Not all groups start their company at the iHub, but they do meet their future business partners there. The Rupu founders met at an iHub event, and subsequently went on to grow their business, the same is true of companies like Skyline Design, and probably many others who we don’t even know about.

It turns out that serendipity is intrinsically hard to measure.

Larger events, groups and meetings:

One of the 120+ events that takes place at the iHub each year.

One of the 120+ events that takes place at the iHub each year.

  • Pivot East – annual pitching competition for East Africa’s mobile startups
  • iHub Robotics (now Gearbox community) meet-ups and build nights
  • EANOG – East Africa Network Operators Group
  • Kids Hacker Camp – 40 kids hack on Arduino, learn about robotics and sensors in a week long full-day hackathon, in partnership with IBM
  • NRBuzz – A monthly event on sharing research on new technologies and communication
  • Summer Data Jam – an annual 6-weeks training on Research and Data
  • Tajriba – month-long user experience event
  • m:lab mobile training – 22 students, 4 months, business and mobile programming (2 years to date)
  • Legal month – annual event with visiting legal professionals leading workshops
  • Barcamp Nairobi (2010, 2011, 2013)
  • Waza Experience – volunteer outreach initiative to expose Kenyan youth to technology and spur creative thinking, problem solving, and better communication skills
  • Fireside Chats – A session for VIP and seasoned speakers
  • Mobile Monday
  • Wireless Wednesday
  • JumpStart Series
  • Pitch Night
  • iHub Livewire – music concert by the iHub community
  • iHub Research Coffee Hour
  • We have a Policy Formulation Team which consists of Jessica Musila, Martin Obuya Paul Muchene, and Jimmy Gitonga. Each one of us sits or has sat through a policy formulation process, such as the AU CyberSecurity (Martin and Paul) and MySociety, Mzalendo (Jessica Musila) and National Broadband Strategy (Jimmy Gitonga).

Outreach events

Egerton University
Catholic University
Kabarak University (Nakuru)
JKUAT (Juja)
Dedan Kimathi (Nyeri)
Maseno University
Nelson Mandela University – Arusha
Strathmore / Intel
University of Nairobi – School of Computing and Informatics

Research-related activities:

Launching of the Data Science and Visualization Lab – 2013
First Summer Data Jam Training – 2013

Research published:

List of infographics created (PDF Links):

iHub-Research-infographic

Mobile Technology in Tanzania: 2011
Mobile Technology in Uganda: 2010/2011
Mobile Technology in Kenya: 2010/2011
Kenya Open Data Pre-Incubator Plan: 2012
3Vs Crowdsourcing Framework for Elections: Using online and mobile technology: 2013
How to Develop Research Findings into Solutions using Design Thinking: 2013
Mobile Statistics in East Africa: 2013
iHub Infographic: 2011
Crowdmap Use
Mobile Tech in East Africa: 2011
An Exploratory Study on Kenyan Consumer Ordering Habits

Tech hubs in Africa research (PDF Links):

ICT Hubs Model: Understanding the Factors that make up Hive Colab in Uganda: August 2012
ICT Hubs Model: Understanding the Factor that make up ActivSpaces Model in Cameroon: August 2012
The Impact of ActivSpaces model (in Cameroon) on its Entrepreneurs: January 2013
Draft Report on Comparative Study on Innovation Hubs Across Africa: May 2013
ICT Hubs model: Understanding the Key Factors of the iHub Model, Nairobi Kenya: April 2013
ICT Hubs model: Understanding Factors that make up the KLab Model in Rwanda: April 2013
ICT Hubs model: Understanding Factors that make up the MEST ICT Hub – ACCRA, Ghana: April 2013
ICT Hubs model: Understanding Factors That Make Up Bongo Hive, Lusaka Zambia: April 2013
ICT Hubs model: Understanding Factors that make up Kinu Hub Model in Dar es salaam, Tanzania: April 2013

Key partnerships:

  • Intel
  • Wananchi Group – ZUKU
  • SEACOM
  • Samsung
  • Microsoft
  • Nokia
  • Google
  • Qualcomm
  • MIH
  • InMobi

VIP speakers:

  • Michael Joseph, Safaricom
  • Joseph Mucheru, Google
  • Vint Cerf, Google
  • Stephen Elop, Nokia
  • Marissa Mayer, Yahoo
  • Bob Collymore, Safaricom
  • Larry Wall, Creator of Perl
  • John Waibochi, Virtual City
  • Mike Macharia, Seven Seas
  • Ken Oyola, Nokia
  • Isis Ny’ongo, Inmobi, Investor
  • The tweeting Chief Kariuki
  • Louis Otieno, Microsoft
  • Dadi Perlmutter, Intel
  • Susan Dray, Dray and Associates

The iHub UX Lab and Supercomputer Cluster

When I look at the tech scene in Africa, there is a single question that consistently runs through my mind.

What foundational parts of the technology ecosystem do we own, and what are we reliant on others for?

What I’m talking about here are the items deeper down the stack, the core components that allow a country to own its own technological future. Here are some examples:

  • Do we build our own software, or are we importing it?
  • Can we prototype and build our own hardware, even if not at the scale of China?
  • Are we investing in our own startups, or is that being done by foreigners?
  • Do we have our own researchers, or are we okay with people parachuting in from abroad to do that for us?

It’s quite difficult for me to do much about any of this beyond Kenya, so I focus on what I can do here and hope that it works and the model can transfer elsewhere. The iHub, m:lab, iHub Research and Savannah Fund are examples of this, where our efforts are focused on local software, startups and funding.

The newest additions are the iHub’s UX Lab and a new high performance computer cluster, both filling a void not just in Kenya but in the continent as a whole. Both of which will come online this Summer. Beyond that, we’re looking at hardware, thinking about what it would look like to have our own hackerspace and TechShop, in a model suited for Kenya.

The iHub UX Lab and Supercomputer Cluster

We are fortunate to have excellent corporate partners at the iHub, one of which is Google, who provided some funding to get two initiatives off the ground.

Creating a UX Culture in Kenya
In the software space design is one of our weakest points. This isn’t just web or mobile design, this is product design and it’s rooted in a lack of understanding or desire to provide a better user experience. Core to providing better products is doing research on what users are looking for and how they are using technology in the first place.

Shikoh Gitau has worked closely with the iHub Research team for the past year, in fact the core ideas that presented the challenge for that space to come into existence was from a paper she wrote, where she showed how little of the technology research done in Africa was by African researchers. Shikoh works with the user experience teams at Google, and started talking to us about the UX Labs that they run around the world.

I had also had the chance to do a workshop with Andy Budd at Tech4Africa, and then chat again in the UK later on. First hand, I got to know Gabriel White through some work he did for Ushahidi. Both of them helped me get to a better understanding of the value of UX research in the product design process.

All of this led to us deciding that the iHub should create a UX Lab, a resource that would serve the region. A place where companies and startups learn about and begin thinking about user experience as they develop new products. We’ll do this through masterclass training on skills, partnering with the top UX experts in the world, and by providing the resources for this to happen.

Mark Kamau has joined the team to lead this initiative.

The iHub Cluster

At the end of 2011 I was approached by one of the iHub Green Members, Idd Salim, about an idea of building our own supercomputer. Why?

Outside of South Africa, there is little to no capacity for cloud computing on the continent. This means that few of the programmers in this region have the skill sets necessary to work and build out this infrastructure. We have a severely limited foundation on which to build future services in an increasingly cloud-based computing world.

Some of the use cases where we see the need for this:

  • Research and training opportunities for super computer enthusiasts and university students
  • Training people capable of being SREs (Service Reliability Engineers)
  • Power-Computing service for local content
  • A host for parallel and resource-hungry applications such as weather prediction, draught prediction and real-time information dispatch.

The initial funding for a small HPC deployment has been funded by Google Africa Inc. Intel have further added to the project a Intel MultiFlex® Server for use as the “master” component of the HPC cluster.

Bob Aman works at Google here in Kenya, and has become a staple at the iHub where he runs his office hours twice per week. He, along with Idd Salim and Jimmy Gitonga are building the first 4 nodes of what we hope to be a 24 node cluster. The most I had done before this was build my own gaming rig, so I’ll be honest in saying that I’m the noob in this group, where most of the conversations are beyond me.

As with the UX Lab, the iHub Cluster will be for people to learn what goes on under the hood of HPC’s by building it, and to learn how to use the power in it to solve big data problems. It will also be made available to the animation and ad agencies in town for rendering services.

In Summary

The UX Lab and iHub Cluster will come online this summer. Both projects have the leadership in place to run them and the resources to build them out. They’ll both be located in the same building with the iHub, and both are being built with the greater Kenyan tech community in mind. Like all of the iHub initiatives, they only work when people from the community are a part of them.

If you would like to get involved in either, reach out to the respective leads: Mark Kamau for the UX Lab, and Jimmy Gitonga or Idd Salim for the Cluster.