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Nairobi's innovation hub spawns Kenyan tech revolution

posted 26 Jul 2012, 10:20 by Mpelembe   [ updated 26 Jul 2012, 10:21 ]

Kenya's top creative and innovative space gives smart young developers a platform to work, incubate new ideas and learn how to make start ups work with investment. Five years ago, there was nowhere for developers to come together and grow, today, iHub is setting the pace for Africa's tech revolution and putting Kenya on the global innovations map.

The ideas and innovations born in this airy, open space of a Nairobi office-building are changing the world.

The hundred or so young tech enthusiasts that tap wildly on keyboards and stare intently at the screens of their laptops at any given time at the iHub, are developing applications and platforms that are revolutionizing how seemingly normal sectors like, farming, healthcare and education are being handled.

iHub, is a shared working space that started in Kenya's capital Nairobi, two years ago.

With a good idea, an entrepreneurial spirit and an interest in all things tech, young people from all over the country are finding that their skills are extremely valuable.

iHub manager Tosh Juma says brilliant minds have never been in short supply in Kenya, but the channel to develop the ideas and help them grow into successful businesses has been a long time coming.

"There was an existing small community of techies, software developers, web developers, designers in general. The problem was, when they eventually met, they worked on ideas in those few minutes or few hours they were together but when they went back home, everyone went to their bedrooms, there was no physical space - a nexus point for people to come back and do stuff together, collaborate on projects," said Juma.

Working closely with iHub is mlab, an initiative that helps incubate and train developers to launch their start ups and access markets and funds.

Mobile app developers come here to test their young innovations, on a technical and business front. The mlab has close to 100 different types of mobile handsets used for trials.

Africa is the world's fastest-growing mobile phone market and the poorest continent will be home to 738 million handsets, or nearly three mobiles for every four of its people, by the end of this year, according to an industry survey done in 2011.

Thomas Kioko is testing his latest mobile phone application - Breakdown. If it works, he has already been linked to Samsung, whose mobile app store will carry his innovation. The app is created to help stranded motorists find the nearest point of assistance.

"For instance when your car breaks down and you are in the middle of nowhere, you dont know where to go, so what happens is that it displays like petrol stations that are around you. So once you click on the petrol station you will be able to get their contacts and you will be able to contact them. So the other thing that also displays on the map are garages and probably hospitals in case of emergency," Kioko explained.

"As a country, as a continent, we have skipped so many things, so many technology aspects that other countries in the west implemented. We are now using the mobile as the default device. So, that means someone who has never used a computer before can easily access their email, can easily send messages on facebook and stuff, through their mobile phone, they don't necessarily have to have computer training for that," said Juma.

Gaming enthusiasts Joe Njeru and Mwaura Kirore created a mobile game called Ma3Racer based on Kenya's notoriously traffic unruly minibus taxis or Matatus, sometimes also called Mathrees.

Under their company, Planet Rackus the two full-time tech professionals created the game in their spare time. It is available through Nokia's app store, Ovi as well as Google powered Android phones.

"All our products have been downloaded about 1 million times, including the game, we have mobile comics, we have wall papers and things like that," said Kirore.

After winning a regional competition organised by mlab East Africa known as Pivot East, Planet Rackus got a cash prize and an opportunity to train its members on how to build a successful start up. If their company grows as they hope it will, they plan to leave their current employment and concentrate on this full time.

"There has never been a better time to be a developer in Africa, we have so many problems and they need solutions, which can use technology. It is also a large market, we are now talking of a billion people with a bigger middle-class than India, so in regards to that, for us it is a fantastic opportunity, a big market, there is spending power, there are methods of payment which allow virtual transactions and virtual goods, so I think it is a big big opportunity for us," said Njeru.

iHub has more than 8000 members and works with universities and institutions to spot the next talents coming into the tech community. It also has cooperate partnerships with Google, Samsung, Nokia and lose ties with government entities to tap into various areas of need.

iHub founder Erik Hersman and co-founder of Ushahidi a non-profit software company that collects information for interactive mapping, says the challenge now is to make sure returns from Africa's innovations boom do not "take flight".

"We need investors, local investors, so that the money is made when somebody makes a big success, that capital does not take flight. We need research to be done by researchers here, so that we are not just parachuting researchers from abroad, but we have our own base of researchers that we can do our own research with. The same thing applies to hardware which is kind of like the next big thing. You know, we need a place where we can fabricate and build, and prototype out new stuff and build a certain number of them here, right, instead of actually having to import everything all the time, so that is kind of the mindset when we look at the whole ecosystem," he said.

While Africa's economies have in the past been driven by commodities and minerals, the unique wealth of innovative minds is expected to drive the future. With over 50 incubators and spaces like iHub coming up across the continent, the technology revolution has already begun.