African Innovation

A couple of years ago you didn’t hear the words “Africa” and “innovation” paired up quite as much as you do today.

  • On Saturday I speak at TEDxAntananarivo in Madagascar, and my theme will be on the equal spread of innovation globally.
  • On Monday I get back to Nairobi, only to shoot off to Naivasha for 3 days of the Open Innovation Africa Summit.
  • The last year I’ve spent building out the Nairobi iHub (Innovation Hub).
  • The Maker Faire Africa events in Ghana and Kenya have been about invention, ingenuity and innovation.
  • AfriGadget is built on telling stories of African solving everyday problems with ingenuity and innovation.

By and large, these are events and stories of Africans coming up with innovative solutions and products, solving their own problems and building their own businesses. It would be easy to think that this is just a meme. This is especially true for myself as I’m involved in so much of it. It’s not.

The reality behind the meme

Sisal into rope machineLet’s take the example of Maker Faire Africa participant Alex Odundo from Kisumu in Western Kenya. Alex has spent 5 years coming up with cheaper and more efficient tools to process sisal and make rope. He did this with the mechanical use of a processing machine called Sisal Decorticator, that adds value to the sisal by turning it into rope that can be sold for 100 shillings. This nets him 95 Kenya shillings in profit per kilo.

He’s spent 5 long years refining his machines, selling them and building new ones. Going from sisal processing to rope making with the tools and engines he can fabricate and buy locally. He’s an example of the inventor-entrepreneur who won’t give up, and is trying to build a real business of his niche product. He’s akin to the Charles Goodyear of local rope manufacturing.

What Alex represents is the hardcore inventor, the industrial, non-sexy side of innovation that we don’t often hear about. What usually surfaces, and what I talk about a lot here (and what I’m sure we’ll talk about at all these other events) is the cool, sleek mobile and internet solutions and products.

We give all this airtime to the gadgets and bits, and there are great reasons to do so. Kenya’s advantage in the mobile space around payments and other items is exciting. South Africa’s social networks and global-level web apps are amazing. Ghana’s up-and-coming tech sector, Nigeria’s banks and even Somalia’s mobile networks are all compelling stories on where innovation in both African business and the African tech are taking us.

An equal spread

If there’s one thing that my years spent in this space traipsing around looking for AfriGadget stories, putting on Maker Faire Africa and starting the iHub has taught me, it’s this. That innovation is spread equally around the world. That you’ll find the same number of inventors and innovative solutions coming from people in any country around the globe. Why African innovation is trending to people internationally is because only now have people begun to notice that the same applies on this continent as their own.

African innovation might not look like the innovation you’re used to seeing if you come from another continent. You might miss it because you don’t know what you’re seeing or why a business’s strategy is different than you expect. That doesn’t mean it’s not there.

iHub: Nairobi’s Tech Innovation Hub is Here!

iHub – Nairobi’s Innovation Hub for the technology community – is here! It’s an open space for the technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in the area. This space is a tech community facility with a focus on young entrepreneurs, web and mobile phone programmers and designers. It is part open community workspace (co-working), part investor and VC hub and part incubator.

A number of us in the Nairobi tech community have been discussing the need for a physical nexus for the tech community here for a couple years, so it’s great to finally be so close to uncorking the bottles and celebrating a big step forward for all of us.

iHub opens on March 3, 2010!

Here’s a rough video of the iHub. A first-look at the space, before any design or wiring is done:

[Note: my apologies for the video quality, it was taken with my phone.]

Background and Info

The iHub will have a redundant 10Mbs connection, hardwired and WiFi, and it’s freely available to any tech person in Nairobi to use once they become members. Membership is free, our only requirement is that you are indeed involved in the tech space as a programmer, web designer or mobile application developer.

Data connectivity is the most important aspect of the iHub, but after that comes a fresh design and an atmosphere that is conducive to techies getting cool stuff done.

Finally, we’re putting our networks into place to give special access to the entrepreneurs and startups who need space to meet with VCs, seed funders and local businesses. We’re trying to create the place where seeds are planted and are easily found by the people with money to help them grow.

A Blank Canvas

The iHub is what we as a tech community make it. It is a blank canvas, a big open room with a great view and wonderful location, but still an empty room that needs some input from people within the community to design, and create a culture around.

What part are you going to play?

  • Want to have bragging rights on being the logo designer for the iHub? There’s $500 (38,000 Ksh) up for grabs at the iHub logo contest!
  • Have a penchant for design, want to help layout the floor plan, pick the wall colors or design the signage?
  • We’re wiring this place with the latest and best data connections in Kenya. Can you help us make sure the network is sound?
  • Good at creating intranets for fast and easy file sharing of 1gb+ downloads like the Android SDK? Want to help us build that?
  • Maybe you’ve got great business connections. Will you help us connect the iHub and the people in it to the business community?

iHub Location

The new iHub’s location is going to be on the 4th floor of the new Bishop Magua Centre on Ngong Road (directly opposite the Uchumi Hyper). It’s an amazing location, with quick access to public transportation, food and the rest of town.


View iHub – Nairobi’s Innovation Hub in a larger map

Community Involvement

I’ve been working closely with a couple of people from the community to find a place and get some basic items squared away. This advisory group is made up of individuals with a long standing presence in tech locally, including:

  • Riyaz Bachani, CTO of Wananchi
  • Josiah Mugambi, Co-Founder of Skunkworks
  • Rebeccah Wanjiku, Tech reporter and entrepreneur
  • Conrad Akunga, Blogger and Software Manager
  • Erik Hersman (me), Tech blogger, Founder of AfriGadget and co-Founder of Ushahidi

As mentioned earlier, there are a number of things still to be done, and we all need to band together in order to make this space what we hope it will become. Your ideas and drive will make the iHub into the space to be in all of East Africa for tech-related activities.

If you would like be involved, leave a comment below.

Talking community with Ghanian devs

I was supposed to put on a talk to day at Maker Faire Africa (high-tech side) about mapping on mobiles and web, but when the time came it just didn’t feel like the right thing to do. Instead, with the mix of people at the room I launched into a discussion about what I saw as a lack of communication and cohesion with in the Ghanaian programming community.

Having a Ghana programmer talk

Everyone agreed that there is a lack of general communication and collaboration in this space, though there are a few user groups for things like Linux and a new one for Java. It’s too bad really, because I don’t think there is less talent in Ghana, but that this lack of cohesion of the tech community means that it’s hard for people to “announce” new things and/or get help for areas that they need to get assistance in. The reason I see this is due to the great activity that I see on the Kenyan Skunkworks email list – the contrast between Accra and Nairobi in this is quite stark.

At the end of the discussion, everyone in the room decided to try for the 2nd Tuesday of every month at 7pm. Daisy Baffoe is the one with the list and is going to get in touch with everyone with a location. Hopefully we’ll see the beginnings of a general programmer community in Ghana!

A picture with the Mozilla guys