In the sprawling city of Nairobi, the name ‘iHub’ is synonymous with all things tech. Almost every Tom Dick and Harry knows about this institution, and for good reason. The Innovation Hub, as it is formerly known, since 2010, has been blazing an unbeaten part in tech and innovation in the horn of Africa.
iHub is a community space that is divided into 2 main different functions. First and foremost it is a pre-incubator allowing early-stage innovators to connect with others and grow their ideas into products and services from the ground up. It also works as a vector for investors, connecting people with promising ideas to the right kind of people for funding and/or investment. The idea to come up with the iHub essentially started in 2008/2009 when there was a rapidly growing community of people interested in tech unified under a collective group called SkunkWorks. They would meet frequently to discuss matters around Kenyan tech. During one of their meet-ups they had a debate on how there needed to be a space that actually encouraged the kind of interaction that the group fostered. Inspired by the discussions at SkunkWorks, ERIK HERSMAN —a frequent attendee of these meetings, blogger, TED fellow and entrepreneur — came up with the idea to start the iHub which was unveiled officially in 2010.
The iHub currently employs about 50 permanent staff and over 14,000 permanent members. One can be a white member which online/virtual and this has approximately 13,900 members. There is also green membership which is free and is the pre-incubator tier of membership with 100 members. Lastly there is red membership, which consists of more established startups that pay to have semi-permanent office space at the iHub.
About the iHub, EVANS CAMPBELL, PR & Communications Manager at iHub says, “I think the demand [for spaces such as iHub] has definitely grown and it’s the right kind of demand because it’s community-driven. We try to push other spaces to grow.”
Some of the startups that have originated from this space include Kopo Kopo, who came up with the system behind Lipa na MPESA, allowing SMEs to accept payments via mobile money; Totohealth, which is quite recent and growing rapidly, provides pregnant mothers with crucial health information prior to and after they deliver their babies; Wezatele, which recently got acquired by AFB (a credit firm in Kenya) for their logistical services solution.
However, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the organization. The main challenge faced was that of funding with Campbell saying, “It was pretty easy to realize early on that funding is cyclical, sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not. So because of that we really had to work at figuring out a model that is self-sustaining and it is a challenge we still have.”
His views on the tech industry in Kenya and Africa are bright. “The change in the continental tech landscape is happening for the better, though there is an increasing need for regulators to catch up and stay updated on the rapid developments. There must be a legally-conducive environment for growth to take shape, and that responsibility is with the governments.”
Plans for the future are far reaching. They plan to increase their branches to other Kenyan cities like Mombasa, Kisumu and Nyeri. They also plan on playing the big brother role, helping new hubs figure out what direction to take, offering startups a platform to grow and providing information on ICT and how it is affecting communities.
Campbell’s advice to young people in the tech industry is to take advantage of the resilience, ingenuity and resolve they were born with and build solutions for a better today. “The problems of this continent offer more opportunities than ever to leave a positive mark on people’s lives.”
Photo credits: Techpoint