iHub is evolving to help more start-ups grow and compete

What you need to know:

  • The next phase in the tech ecosystem should be about building sustainable, profitable tech businesses that can scale regionally and globally.
  • Many may recall that the Friday fireside chats at iHub led to the launching of the Kenya Open Data Initiative.
  • iHub has made a remarkable contribution to the country. It is time now to refocus and re-engineer this pioneering organisation to face the future.

iHub, Kenya’s premier technology community working space, is in transition.

As the community bids farewell to its founders, Ory Okolloh, Erik Hersman, David Kobia and Juliana Rotich, Kenya should take note of their achievements in the short period iHub has been in operation.

It is here, for the first time in the history of the country, that companies, both local and international, came together to support a technology community.

The new investors, Miguel Granier, Becky Wanjiku and Ken Mwenda, are not strangers to the tech community in Kenya, and they are seeking greater local ownership in the days to come

This goal cannot be attained without the role of local investors, local and multinational companies that are vital in supporting innovators, solving problems and building scalable businesses.  Entrepreneurship development will be central to the realisation of this proposed direction.

This is informed by the fact that many new co-working spaces and enterprise development centres are springing up.  The next phase in the tech ecosystem should be about building sustainable, profitable tech businesses that can scale regionally and globally.

A revamped iHub with vibrant community participation would play a key role in this vision. It is just as the old African saying says: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.’ iHub will achieve nothing without moving together with the community.

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As a tech start-up ecosystem, Kenya is still in its very early stages compared to a number of other countries. However, it has the capacity to play a key role in global tech developments.

The growing human resource in the tech sector must be harnessed to begin developing local solutions with the potential to scale to other parts of the world. Such local talent should be heavily involved and engaged in charting the general direction of this ecosystem.

Of greater importance is the need to build the necessary ‘soft’ infrastructure (e.g. mentors and knowledge) that is crucial in shaping how more and more young entrepreneurs build successful companies.

For this to happen, Kenya must strive to strengthen the linkages between universities, government and industry, without which the country’s competitiveness as an innovation hub would be compromised.

Indeed, much of what has been achieved so far was the result of closer links between the government and innovation hubs. Many may recall that the Friday fireside chats at iHub led to the launching of the Kenya Open Data Initiative.

The tech revolution in Kenya may have started well before iHub was founded in 2010, but no other space in Kenya has embodied that movement so well.

Community-led to the core, the iHub evolved organically to uniquely serve and power innovation in Kenya. The iHub has become a global model of how to do things right.  

Globally, a space like iHub is not complete without an entrepreneurial program.  This fact is underscored by Brad Feld’s highlights of the crucial role that entrepreneurs play in growing the ecosystem in the article "Start-up Communities are up to the entrepreneurs"

From the beginning, the iHub has been a place for the tech community to gather, learn and collaborate in Nairobi. For much of that time, it was a unique offering for a talented, eager, but scattered community, a central location that was open to all.

BEYOND COMMUNITY SPACE

It is also a highly active convener engaged in advocacy for both members and non-members alike.

There is no doubt that iHub has been a success. As a 2015 report by Intellecap titled Closing the Gap Kenya noted, the ecosystem has blossomed with over 10 incubators or co-working spaces (Nailab, Startup Garage and UON’s C4DLab, to name a few) in Nairobi alone. 

The report adds that “…early stage capital in the form of angel investing is a recent trend in Kenya, and has gained momentum since 2010.” In fact, since 2008, over 82 start-ups in Nairobi have been funded and over $10m of capital deployed.

So what now? The development of the innovation ecosystem has created an opportunity for iHub to do what they have always done best, to look towards the future and evolve in exciting ways to meet the needs of the community.  

What the community needed six years ago is different from what the community needs now, and will need in the next five years and beyond. It is clear that having a public venue for our tech community to gather is still critical, but space alone is not sufficient.

USER EXPERIENCE CONSULTING

The tech community has been fortunate enough to watch as a bunch of techies have evolved into entrepreneurs, but in many ways, iHub has not evolved fast enough to better support the growth of these enterprises. This is an opportunity that new shareholders and investors in the iHub see for the future of the organization.

The community's push to innovate and evolve requires capital to achieve and scarcity of resources has meant that some great ideas have been left to gather dust.

A group of new investors have come recently behind iHub to put some momentum behind these initiatives.  They now want to see a more inclusive ownership where the local community plays a key role. It is this collaboration that would enable iHub to extend its services to the community.

Over time, a services team has become a core part of iHub. This service team captures both the incredible talent of the community which it organises into concrete consulting, for both the vibrant Kenyan innovation community and international organisations looking to connect in some way with the local ecosystem.

These services include web application development, market research, tech marketing services, User Experience (UX) consulting, and data analysis. The result has been the creation of a high performance team that can take tech projects from concept to quality product.

However, there remains much opportunity to grow partnerships with Kenya’s private sector, start-up scene, and multinationals with an Africa footprint.

NEEDS OF GROWING COMPANIES

As always, the community is at the core of iHub and their voices will provide the collective vision for iHub’s next chapter.

In the coming months, iHub will undertake a significant outreach and research initiative to better understand the current and future needs of innovation community in Kenya.

Josiah Mugambi, iHub’s Chief Executive says, the result will be “an iHub that better reflects the needs of the community today and is better equipped to support their growth from idea to scalable business.”

According to Mugambi, plans for iHub go well beyond the shared community space, events and incubation. Some of the biggest changes will be within iHub’s collective services, ensuring ongoing sustainability while expanding offerings that uniquely serve the needs of growing companies.

Despite all the ongoing changes at iHub, it is clear that some things will never change and probably shouldn’t.  Erik Hersman, iHub’s outgoing co-founder captured the spirit of iHub well in 2011 “…iHub’s success comes from a community that works together. In that spirit of ‘harambee’ that is so much a part of our Kenyan life.”

To forget that would be to destroy the very thing that so many have worked so hard to build.

REFOCUS AND RE-ENGINEER

The following are some of the achievements of the outgoing team. iHub has over 16,500 registered members, and has supported over 170 start-ups, with 28 of them being incubated by the  m:lab. iHub has a a followership of 137,000 Twitter followers and has hosted 500 events hosted, with an average of 20 held each month.

Their success extends to some of the startups who met, work, or started at the iHub. They include: 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, MamaTele, RevWebolution, Smart Blackboard – Mukeli Mobile and Abacus Technologies.

iHub has made a remarkable contribution to the country. It is time now to refocus and re-engineer this pioneering organisation to face the future. As the new investors have said, success will be elusive without closer collaboration between local and international investors.

Locals need to heed this call and invest in the future of iHub.  Personally, I made the commitment to invest my time and resources to sustain the iHub brand.

The writer is a technology enthusiast and an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.