A busy week for tech entrepreneurs in Kenya

A photo posted by Ciril Jazbec (@ciriljazbec) on


National Geographic photographer Ciril Jazbec was in town capturing the tech entrepreneur feel of Nairobi and surrounds.

I’m about a week late on my post, but thought I’d round up some of the news from the crazy week that ended with the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in Nairobi. With US President Barrack Obama in town, bringing some of the biggest names in tech and business with him, it was bound to be a circus.

We embraced the madness at the iHub and there were a great many events.

One of the highlights for the week was seeing our very own Judith Owigar, co-founder of Akirachix and long-time iHub member, up on stage seated between President's Uhuru and Obama on the main GES stage.

One of the highlights for the week was seeing our very own Judith Owigar, co-founder of Akirachix and long-time iHub member, up on stage seated between President’s Uhuru and Obama on the main GES stage.

Big things that happened:

Bloomberg came by and did a photo walkthrough of the iHub, featuring Ushahidi and BRCK as well.

There was a good piece in TIME magazine about Obama’s visit and BRCK’s work around education, titled, “Obama Sees Kenya as a Hotbed of Innovation — Not Terror

A timely piece on TechCrunch titled, “The Rise Of Silicon Savannah And Africa’s Tech Movement” came out.

VC funding in African Tech Startups chart

The Next Africa bookThe Next Africa book launched, written by Aubrey Hruby and Jake Bright, we had a session at the iHub to talk through it with some of the subjects, like Just A Band, Dr. Bitange Ndemo and IBM.

We did a Fireside Chat with Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of AirBnB, that was one of the best we’ve had.

A piece in Forbes, “Why Kenyan Tech Entrepreneurs Deserve All Obama’s Praise“.

IBM partnered with the iHub to launch the innovation @ iHub space, so we’ll be working a lot closer with them going forward and that means members of the iHub community will get a lot more access to IBM, its partners and its resources.

Jean and Steve Case at the iHub
Jean and Steve Case, AOL Founders and investors, came to the iHub and ran a social impact tech pitching competition. They brought with them other investors, including Jim Sorenson, and Nina Tellegen CEO of the DOEN Foundation. Here’s Jean’s writeup on the week.

Finally, the US Gov’t made a lot of commitments to African entrepreneurs.

While it was a big week, and it served to remind us how far we’ve come and a chance to celebrate it with the world, we still have a long way to go.

BRCK: Also designed in Kenya and made in the USA. We had a little fun at BRCK with the Obama activity... :)

BRCK: Also designed in Kenya and made in the USA. We had a little fun at BRCK with the Obama activity… :)

The Cross Section of a Tech Ecosystem

I end up talking a lot about our tech community here in Kenya and I’ve had a front seat to what it looks like from the iHub. In my mind, I think about it like the cable conduit below, where you have multiple different parts that seem to look, feel and act independently, but together form a whole.

A cable crosssection

One grouping is starups, another is investors, another is large tech companies, and yet another is researchers. There are bloggers, digital creatives, visiting techies, SME leaders who’ve learned their lessons, and freelancers moonlighting from their day jobs. It’s a big mixed bag and we all together form an ecosystem. A healthy ecosystem is where all of the sub-cable systems are functioning well and there are no cuts.

Moving beyond the cable metaphor, a healthy tech ecosystem is where the different parties are able to and want to work together. Where each is happy to see the other do well and will go out of their way to help make connections and bring others forwards with themselves.

The iHub at 5

Celebrating the Community - iHub's 5 Year Tech Bash

Celebrating the Community – iHub’s 5 Year Tech Bash

43 companies in the Kenyan tech scene have come together to put on an event for 3,000+ people in the tech community, the #5yrTechBash at the Arboretum. The iHub is turning 5 and it’s a testament to the people and companies who make up this space that we’re thriving and have a chance to celebrate.

It’s a community event by all of us, for all of us!

iHub-5-year-music-bash

Community as our Legacy

There has been a long history of the tech community in Kenya coming together, from Skunkworks and Barcamps to the iHub itself. I tend to think of community connectedness as one of Kenya’s key competitive advantages. Read this blog post by the founders of Angani, a company made up of some of the pioneers in the space, to understand some of the background on how this has come together.

If you read this post I wrote on “What makes the iHub Work” from 4 years ago, you’ll see that it’s a combination of many people that ultimately makes it different and why it still makes such an impact on people’s lives. Also take a moment to read Josiah Mugambi’s piece on the last 5 years.

The iHub community over 5 years

The iHub community over 5 years

Tracking the Numbers

One of the great strengths of the iHub is the serendipity that you have by coming in and running into people. However, that’s an inherently difficult thing to measure. I wrote a blog post 1.5 years ago about “what has the iHub done“, and it’s time for an update.

If you’re a place like the iHub with your own Research arm, then you measure other things, this from Leo Mutuku and the team at iHub Research:

iHub Startup Numbers over 5 years

iHub Startup Numbers over 5 years

In the second year of the iHub, we started the iHub Research arm and the m:lab, both of which have excelled. iHub Research’s job is to shares stories about the vibrant East African technology community by conducting ICT research on technology innovation within the community. Here’s what they’ve done:

iHub Research over 5 years

iHub Research over 5 years

To the next 5!

As much as the big bash today is a celebration of the past 5+ years, it’s also a time to get ready for the NEXT 5 years. While we’ve made a lot of progress as a whole, we’ve gotten much further than many thought we could in this time, we still have a long way to go.

A timeline of events in Tech in Kenya over 5 years

A timeline of events in Tech in Kenya over 5 years

A Gallery of Pics

EDIT: Wanted to add some pictures that bring me the memories of the faces and events of the past few years.

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Barcamp Nairobi 2014 Edition

Barcamp Nairobi 2014Barcamp Nairobi 2014 is set to begin, seven years after the first one was held. It’s one of those events that brings people out of the woodwork around the city, where techies who don’t normally meet end up having great conversations, and relationships are formed.

This Saturday, Aug 30th at 08:00, your chance to lead a conversation on something interesting begins. Nailab and iHub are hosting it, and we’re expecting 400 people to show up for the event.

Go register now, if you haven’t already, it’s free.

It was while sitting around after Barcamp Nairobi 2008 that the seed for what would become the iHub was planted, and why this post was written (many old blog posts from 2008 here). Many of the people I work with today on the teams at BRCK and Ushahidi were at these same events over the years.

Past Barcamp Nairobi Pics

Discussion topics

You’re the one who decides what the discussion will be, and we’ve seen everything from “how to make yoghurt” to “Python 101″ to “blogging for women” conversations (and everything in between).

This year, there’s bound to be some discussions around government surveillance and personal privacy in Kenya.

We entrust our most sensitive, private, and important information to private technology companies. At the same time the increasing usage of technology has attracted the attention of authorities eager to provide caveats on the openness of the Internet and the range of freedoms, which we enjoy online.

That’s sure to be a firestorm, of the best kind…

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

Launching Gearbox, A Kenyan Makerspace

Gearbox: Kenya's Makerspace for tinkerers and makers of things

Gearbox: Kenya’s Makerspace for tinkerers and makers of things

We’ve been talking (and talking, and talking) about a rapid prototyping space here in Nairobi for ages. Without the resources to do it, the community got things started on their own with the iHub Robotics Group, who does all kinds of cool meetings; from training newbies like me and my daughters on Arduino and Raspberry Pi, to events where they showcase locally made solar tracking systems and help to run kids hacker camps.

This week we’re announcing Gearbox – our makerspace in Nairobi.

What is a Makerspace?

A makerspace (or hackerspace) is where a community of people who like to make physical products, who enjoy tinkering, and who design everything from electronics gadgets to plastic toys meet and work. To us, it’s a place where the worlds of high-tech software geeks meet jua kali artisans. This is why our space covers to flavors; what we call “Gearbox: Light” (electronics and plastics) and “Gearbox: Heavy” (wood and metal). Keep in mind, this isn’t a manufacturing facility for many items, instead it’s a place where you rapidly prototype out your idea to see if it will work – once you figure it out, then you have to find another facility for real production.

This is a place that is very community oriented, where there are advanced users and experienced fabricators around who are part of the community as well. It’s not enough just to be a member, but you also must give back by helping the newbies and running a few trainings to get people up to speed on the equipment.

Gearbox: Heavy
This is where we have heavy duty equipment, the metal working and wood working equipment and tools that allow you to build and prototype large things. Our friends at Re:Char built a “shop in a box” – basically a container with a bunch of amazing equipment. They’ve donated that to the iHub, and we’re finding a home for it now, so that everyone in our community can start building big things.

re:char factory is 20' container

Examples of the equipment:

  • CNC table w/ backup supplies
  • Diesel Generator
  • Welding equipment
  • Band saw, full + handheld
  • Compressor, full + portable
  • Power supply scrubber
  • Oxyacetylene torches
  • Saws, table + chop
  • Soldering iron
  • Drill press, hand drill, corded + cordless
  • Grinders
  • Forge

Gearbox: Light
When we were building out the BRCK, we found that we needed a polished space where we had access to some of the tools and equipment needed for higher-level electronics, while at the same time a place where we could mill out, or 3d print, early versions of the case. We soon found out that there were others creating robots, drones, TV devices and point of sale systems that also needed a place to do rapid testing of their ideas, but who didn’t have the tools themselves.

Solar Kits at Maker Faire Africa in Kenya

Our plan is to have this part of the electronics and plastics part of Gearbox on the 2nd floor of the iHub building. Where you’ll be able to come in and use a 3D printer, laser cutter, smaller CNC machines and soldering equipment. Again, the idea that there are experts around who you can talk to about the right materials, or a more efficient process for building your gadget, is here.

What we need

  • Makers – you want to build something, here’s your chance. Jump on the website and register for a membership, come in and build stuff.
  • Experts – if you’re beyond novice, have built products, please get in touch. We need you to help train and build up the next generation of makers.
  • Interns – a number of you have already been in touch, but we’re looking for 2-4 paid interns who will help manage the space and build the community.

On capital
It costs some money to get started with Gearbox, and a lot of groups are stepping up to help, and we could use some more. The partners for Gearbox are Sanergy, Ushahidi, BRCK, Knowable and Mobius Motors, and we’re looking for more. Academic partners are MIT thus far, and we’d like to get a few more signed up here too. If your company needs access to this kind of equipment from time-to-time, get in touch.

Right now we could use about $50,000 for some equipment purchases, as it’s expensive to buy and ship some items to Kenya. If you can help on that, please get in touch.

Long-term we have other plans for keeping Gearbox sustainable in 3 ways:

  1. Membership: There will be monthly membership fees, the rates are still being determined, but it will be affordable.
  2. Gearshop: There will be a store, where you can buy the small components and resources you need, as well as a place where we sell on consignment, things made by the community.
  3. Partners: Corporate partners who want to be a part of this community can do take part showcasing their products and doing events.

I’ve said for a long time that I think we in Africa have an advantage in making things. It’s a culture that’s never been lost, and we’re used to improvising, adapting and overcoming challenges that come our way. This is our first foray into that meeting of the worlds between high-tech and low-tech making, and I’ve not been this excited about something for a long time.

Join us!

The Nairobi Kids (Hardware) Hacker Camp

The Kids Hacker Camp at the iHub in KenyaFor the last 2 years I’ve wanted to do a camp where we get a bunch of kids together for a fun week of computers and hardware. It finally is happening, this week we have 40 boys and girls, ages 10-16 and from all demographics and types of schools at the iHub. One of them is my daughter, who kept bouncing around excited about it over the weekend, chomping at the bit to get started.

(more info here on the iHub blog)

Nairobi's Kids Hacker Camp at the iHub

What gives me warm fuzzies about this is two-fold. First, acknowledgment that my colleague Jessica Colaco is as amazing as ever, pulling this whole thing together in the last few weeks with IBM and the help of a dozen university-level hardware hackers from the robotics club at the iHub. Second, knowing that it’s taken us a while to really engage kids with tech, and that we’re finally doing it.

I was only able to spend time there intermittently thus far, and I saw the kids get intro’d to robotics (servos and motors) by a guy named Peter, who had built his own remote controlled transforming car. Everything was built by hand, nothing off the shelf, even the remote control itself. Here’s a short video of it closing back up.

A handmade, transforming remote controlled car – Kids Hacker Camp Nairobi from WhiteAfrican on Vimeo.

remote-controlled-transforming-car

They’ve spent a couple days on breadboards, learning how transistors and diodes work using LED lights. Now they’re onto sensors and micro-controllers (Arduino), and they’re making weather stations as their final project.

The kids are split up into groups of 5-6 kids, with two adults per group, that way each kid gets a lot of time hands-on with the equipment and can ask plenty of questions.

diagraming-electricity

Learning How Power Flows – Nairobi Kids Hacker Camp from WhiteAfrican on Vimeo.

Mobile and Internet Numbers for East Africa (2013 edition)

iHub Research continues to put out great research for clients. They also take time to put together the numbers for everyone else as far as what’s going on in our part of Africa.

Mobile & Internet Stats for East Africa

The most recent stats for East Africa’s mobile and internet usage have been put into an new infographic.

Mobile and Internet use in East Africa, an infographic by iHub Research

Mobile and Internet use in East Africa, an infographic by iHub Research

Here is a dump of the data used for this infographic:

Kenya Mobile Statistics
(Population: 44,037,656 July 2013 estimate)
30,429,351 mobile subscribers
16,236,583 (41%) Internet users
3.6 billion outgoing & incoming SMS
251,567 fixed lines
78% teledensity

Tanzania Mobile Statistics
(Population: 48,261,942 July 2013 estimate)
27,395,650 mobile subscribers
5,308,814(11%) Internet users
4.3 billion outgoing & incoming SMS
176,367 fixed lines
61% teledensity
7,662,504,921 voice traffic

Uganda Mobile Statistics
(Population: 34,758,809 July 2013 estimate)
18,300,000 mobile subscribers
4,800,000 (3.2%) Internet users
520 million outgoing & incoming SMS
464,849 fixed lines
52% teledensity
215,110,452 voice traffic

Rwanda Mobile Statistics
(Population: 12,012,589 July 2013 estimate)
6,039,615 mobile subscribers
903,964 Internet users
26 million outgoing & incoming SMS
42,323 fixed lines
57% teledensity
1,470,290,068 voice traffic

Burundi Mobile Statistics
(Population: 10,888,321 July 2013 estimate)
2,995,000 mobile subscribers
157,800 Internet users
80,039 fixed lines
2% teledensity
157,800 voice traffic

Sources:
http://www.telegeography.com/products/commsupdate/articles/2013/03/19/u-com-burundi-adds-mobile-banking-to-drive-customer-growth/
http://www.independent.co.ug/business/business-news/7748-airtel-warid-merger-shakes-market
http://www.independent.co.ug/news/news-analysis/7332-telecoms-gear-for-turf-wars-in-2013
http://www.independent.co.ug/business/business-news/7748-airtel-warid-merger-shakes-market
http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/07/22/ozabs-econet-burundi-subscribers-idAFJOE76L0EY20110722
http://www.cio.co.ke/news/top-stories/Africell-buys-Tigo-to-expand-in-Sierra-Leone
http://dlca.logcluster.org/BDI/logistics-services/index.html
CIA World Factbook

2011/2012 Stats and Infographic

Here’s the 2011/2012 numbers for all of the countries in East Africa, plus some bonus numbers around mobile money at that time.

2011 and 2012 East Africa mobile and internet statistics infographic by iHub Research

2011 and 2012 East Africa mobile and internet statistics infographic by iHub Research

See the old ones from 2011 in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. You can also see the some 2012 numbers on the iHub that they put together as well.

Tech Links Around Africa, March 2013

[Last week I had a security problem with WordPress, which is fixed now, my apologies for any inconvenience]

Pivot East, our East African pitching competition, will be held in Uganda for the first time this year. Get your applications in, and plan your travel for June 25-26th in Kampala.

Bosun Tijani and the ccHub are part of what I think is a fantastic idea. Instead of building a “tech city”, they’re creating a “tech neighborhood” in Lagos, Nigeria with many partners.

Nigeria's I-HQ project

The three types of tech incubators in Africa. I disagree a bit here, but will save that for another post.

A long essay, comparing Kenya and Rwanda’s efforts to become the tech hub of East Africa.

Surprising no one, Uganda’s mobile money service eclipses traditional banking with 8.9m users (compared to 3.6m for banks).

Good article by The Next Web on how winning in African tech is a patience game.

Not specifically about Africa, but here’s a great graphic that maps out the alternative financial ecosystem, of which mobile money plays a significant role.

I love this Africa-inspired Foosball table design, which would be made better without all the NGO crap on it.
African-foosball

Personal Link Updates:

Community Connectedness as a Competitive Advantage

In the last couple weeks I’ve had the opportunity to be in Nigeria (Maker Faire Africa), followed by South Africa (AfricaCom). Along with Kenya, these countries represent the biggest technology countries on the continent. They are the regional tech hub cities at this point in Africa.

In both places I was struck by how different each country is, and the challenges and opportunities that arise due to the tech community’s connectedness, regulatory stance and local entrepreneurship culture.

The Kenyan tech community in the iHub

Some Theories

South Africa has so much infrastructure, you’re immediately struck by how money isn’t an issue there. The lesson I took away from the DEMO Africa conference is that South Africans are far, far ahead of the rest of the continent in enterprise apps and services. They tend to see themselves as “not African”, and try to identify with Americans or Europeans. This comes out in their tech products, they have a more global focus and tend to fill the gaps that are needed by the many multinational corporates that call South Africa their home in Africa.

Nigeria has so many people, it overwhelms in it’s pure mass. It’s a bit cramped, louder, and more energetic than almost any other country in Africa. Nigerians have a long history in entertainment, with their Nollywood films and music spreading across the continent. It wouldn’t be surprising to find a killer entertainment consumer app coming from Nigeria, that can be exported regionally and internationally.

Kenyan tech companies tend to focus on localized consumer needs, and we have a competitive advantage in anything to do with mobile money. Even in the secondary and tertiary uses, I’m always struck by how much more advanced the Kenyan startups are with local eCommerce products and marketplaces than their other African counterparts.

Kenya is smaller than Nigeria and has less infrastructure than South Africa. Why then are there so many more startups per capita, more innovative products coming from Kenya right now?

A History of Community

Kenya’s technology scene is vibrant and there’s a certain connectedness amongst the community that isn’t found in the other two countries, yet.

Having a Ghana programmer talk

I was in Ghana in 2009 for the first Maker Faire Africa. I went around visiting a lot of tech companies and individuals I had gotten to know via blogging over the years. What struck me at the time was that there wasn’t even a tech mailing list that connected the community. We’d had the Skunkworks mailing list in Kenya since 2006. My assumption had been that every country with any type of critical mass in tech had a forum of some sort for connecting tech people to each other.

20+ members in the Ghana tech community came together at Maker Faire Africa and decided to start Ghana tech mailing list. I’m still subscribed to it, and it’s a great resource for both myself and those using it. With that list, and the founding of MEST in 2008 (their tech entrepreneur training center) that Ghana’s tech scene started to get connected and move forward strongly together a couple years ago.

Points of view

Fast forward to Nigeria a couple weeks ago. As far as I can tell, there are some tech-related forums, though not a mailing list. These have been valuable in connecting people, but it seems that the ccHub, founded last year, is the start of a real connectedness between members of the tech community. I got the feeling that all the energy and entrepreneurialism that makes up the Nigerian culture of business now has a tech heart and that we’ll see an acceleration of growth in the coming years that has been missing until now.

For many years, the tech bloggers of South Africa organized and centralized conversations around tech with events like 27Dinner, BarCamps and more. They have long-standing tech hubs, such as Bandwidth Barn, they have a network of angel investors and greater access to VC funding. There wasn’t a centralized mailing list or forum back in the day (before 2008) that I know of. A few years ago we saw the rise of Silicon Cape, an initiative to bring attention to Cape Town’s startup culture.

At AfricaCom an interesting discussion ensued around South Africa’s tech community and questions on why it wasn’t getting as much attention or traction as Kenya. Two points were brought up that I think are incredibly important.

First, while Silicon Cape is focused on branding (and doing a good job of it), what is really needed is someone to bring the new tech hubs, startups, angel investors, media, academia, corporations, and even the government together. There’s a lot of activity, each in it’s own silo. It’s a hard job being the trusted bridge between these different parts of what can be a very opinionated and political community. I’d suggest that Silicon Cape’s mission should be to do just this.

Second, In Kenya and Nigeria the founders of startups tend to look a lot like a cross section of the country’s population. The tech community in South Africa doesn’t look a lot like the racial makeup of the country. to put it bluntly, I rarely see a black South African tech entrepreneur. Not being from there, I’m not sure why this is, so it’s just an observation. It’s hard to build a product for a community that you’re not from, nor understand, so I can’t help but think that the South African tech scene would benefit greatly by having more people building companies to solve problems from all parts of that country’s stratified makeup.

A Connected Community

Sitting at 38,000 feet writing this piece, I keep thinking how there seems to be a link between the connectedness of a tech community in a country and it’s vibrancy as an industry. Though I realize there are other variables, this explanation helps me explain why Kenya is further ahead in some areas than other countries.

As I look to Kenya more deeply I’m struck by how important the egoless actions of individuals like Riyaz Bachani and Josiah Mugambi (Skunkworks), Dr. Bitange Ndemo (Government), Joe Mucheru (Google), and others have been in setting us on a trajectory that we all benefit from as the whole becomes greater than the sum of it’s parts.

This theory of a connected tech community doesn’t mean that the everyone always agrees or walks in lock-step with each other. There’s a healthiness in internal critique and desire to find solutions beyond the status quo of the moment. However, I do think it does provide a foundational element for cities and countries trying to grow a more meaningful and vibrant tech community.

The connectedness can come in two ways, digital and analog, and will have a different flavor in each country that mirrors it’s own culture. It helps to have a centralized digital space to throw out questions, opinions and find answers on efficiently. Equally, I think we’re seeing that analog, physical meeting spaces that are represented by the growing number of tech hubs around the continent are another way to accelerate the connectedness needed to grow.

Africa’s tech hubs are the new centralized meeting spaces, the watering holes, for connectivity and connectedness. However, it’s not enough to have a space, without local champions who are willing to make it their mission to grow, connect and bridge the tech ecosystem (gov’t, corporates, startups, academia, investors), then they won’t work.