Nairobi Embraces the Innovators

March 20, 2015

Kenya’s capital provides the right environment for tech inventors and entrepreneurs to flourish.

Africa doesn’t have a Silicon Valley, but it could one day have a Silicon Savannah. The continent has a lot of innovation centers (around 100), and Nairobi is host to many of them. In 2015 Kenya’s capital was the only African city to be shortlisted among 21 “intelligent communities” around the world by the Intelligent Community Forum. In the decade to 2010, Nairobi’s IT sector grew at an average of 20 percent annually. East Africa’s largest city is one of the continent’s best venues for innovators.

As Africa’s economies continue their rapid growth, the continent’s large youth population is becoming increasingly tech literate.

Enabling environment

Nairobi provides the components for a good innovation environment: a high number of educated people, strong economic growth that creates a good domestic market and a government that funds technology infrastructure. Mobile money as a mass banking mechanism began in Kenya and ICT is emphasized at schools under the nation’s Vision 2030 plan.

Innovation labs are built on such foundations, and their role is to bring together people with different abilities and specialties in a single workspace. It’s an approach that is proven to bring results. Bell Labs and Xerox PARC established this concept in the US. Now tech hubs in Nairobi such as iHub and C4DLab at the University of Nairobi are making it work in Africa.

The iHub is descended from a vibrant online tech community in Nairobi called Skunkworks. This group developed Ushahidi, an open source information platform (and now a global organization) in response to Kenya’s post-election violence in 2008. The iHub, launched in 2010, is the space created for these groups and other innovators to meet and work together. To date, it has launched 152 successful start-ups.

Nairobi leads a wider movement. A network called AfriLabs brings together 36 labs, including iHub, from 18 countries around Africa. Labs such as iHub in Nairobi, Co-Creation Hub in Lagos, MEST in Accra, and BongoHive in Lusaka are collaborating and providing a vital intersect between education, innovation and entrepreneurship. Kenya’s government has set a goal to host an innovation lab in each of the country’s 47 counties.

Commercial support

The private sector is embracing the model too, driven by the potential for technology to bridge infrastructure gaps. IBM Research announced it would open its first African innovation lab in Nairobi in 2012. Mastercard and Philips began setting up their own labs in 2014.

IBM Research – Africa aims to provide solutions in areas such as emergency response, traffic monitoring and smart agriculture. The lab uses IBM’s world-class research capabilities to commercialize tech that fits into the Kenyan and African context. “We call it ‘frugal innovation,’” said chief scientist Dr. Osamuyimen Stewart, in an interview with Stanford Business. “Frugal innovation asks: In the face of nothing, can I create something? It’s a new grand challenge, and as researchers, it gets us excited.”

As Africa’s economies continue their rapid growth, the continent’s large youth population is becoming increasingly tech literate. Innovation labs have recognized that tech start-ups could help bridge infrastructure gaps and create employment opportunities and Nairobi’s enabling environment is helping them to succeed. These buildings could be the places where Africa’s future is made.