Kenya's iHub grows 10-fold
Kenya's first exclusive IT incubation centre marked its first anniversary amid growing interest in tech start-ups and IT innovation in East Africa, with now 3 036 members and the first wave of iHub-fuelled IT products now coming to market in the region.
The innovation hub (iHub) in Nairobi, set up in March last year, has grown ten-fold in its first year, from initially 300 members, and has emerged as a bustling IT den that its sponsors claim is unique in Africa, in its model of free access to IT resources, Internet, expert speakers, and specialist forums for programmers, hackers, designers, entrepreneurs and tech start-ups.
Established by Erik Hersman, co-founder of the mobile and online disaster and emergency tracking software Ushahidi, the iHub is quickly establishing itself as the heart of Kenya's 'Silicon Valley', bringing techies together to work on individual and group projects in an innovation hothouse.
"The idea behind the iHub came from a mixture of things. First, seeing co-working spaces crop up in other countries around the world, and how that type of open working environment for freelancers worked so well.
“What we added to the mix was the idea of a 'community commons', making a home for the tech community, a place where they felt welcome and could run events and meet-ups,” says Hersman.
The community has grown to 1 236 developers and 876 creatives, some of whom work off-site, but form part of the team.
iHub's multi-level membership system allows flexibility, while at the same time tapping into the skills and experience of developers who would otherwise pursue projects on their own.
The 235 green members can walk in and use the iHub at any time, for free, taking advantage of the high-speed Internet connection of 20Mpbs. Red members pay for space and facilities at the iHub while white members form part of the greater community or friends of iHub.
“We have stayed the course of our vision to create a space of Nairobi's technology community, made up of entrepreneurs, programmers, corporates, investors and academia to have a place to gather and get further together,” says Hersman.
“It's growing much faster than we had thought, and we are working hard to ensure we meet the needs of the community.”
The creative environment, mostly made up of young techies and open wide space, has hosted over 70 events in the last 12 months, ranging from hackathons to investor pitches and product launches.
Twelve tech companies have been formed as a result of interaction and relationship formed at the iHub, three of which have found funding through investors that also came through iHub.
Akirachix, an all-ladies group, is one of the companies that has attracted funding, having already won $12 000 in the inaugural IPO48 competition for developing a mobile-based marketplace that facilitates sharing information about agricultural produce so that farmers can achieve better prices.
Another company, Zege Technologies, has developed an application that integrates the major mobile payment platforms in real-time, saving companies money and time. The application is already being deployed by several companies, making it easier and faster for customers to pay their bills using their mobile phones.
“iHub provides networking opportunities in a community while also providing entrepreneurs with the space to grow their ideas and applications,” says Kariuki Gathitu, Zege Technologies founder.
With the growing interest and demand for mobile applications, iHub is now positioning itself to reap from the mobile apps windfall by setting up a new incubator in the same building.
“We are launching the m-lab next month. It's a mobile lab, incubating companies with a focus on mobile apps and services and it is also a training room and mobile app testing facility with all of today's mobile phones,” says Hersman.
In addition to the mobile lab, the iHub is expanding its activities this year to include business and advanced programming training, public events for product showcasing and a research arm, dedicated to facilitating local technology research capacity building.
An Afrilabs Association has been founded to bring together other similar initiatives across Africa, enabling information sharing with other incubation centres.
The iHub has attracted corporate partners including Wananchi, Google, Nokia and Microsoft while the initial seed capital to set up office was provided by Ushahidi through funding from Omidyar Network and Hivos.