Nerding in Nairobi

A few months travelling, living and hacking in Kenya

iHub Nairobi

iHub launched 3 years ago and became a pioneering co-working space and incubator in Nairobi. I’ve visited a few times and sat down with their community manager, Rachel Gichinga.

  • Part of the iHub co-working space
  • 3D printing at iHub
  • Pete’s coffee? Lots of SF people here.
  • An evening talk at iHub

iHub currently runs four programs, mostly paid for by grants from groups like Omidyar and Microsoft:

  • Co-working and pre-incubation space is offered free to accepted applicants. Developers in the space spend about 60% of their time freelancing to pay the bills and the remainder developing mobile apps to turn into a business. iHub offers some mentorship but is mostly pretty hands-off aside from organizing events and bringing in experts from the likes of Microsoft, Google and Intel. From here, some developers move to running small businesses (e.g. IT, web development) or incubating a startup downstairs but most stick around to freelance.
  • m:lab provides subsidized space for early-stage startups to work on their products. They evaluate applicants for their potential for both social impact and profitability and expect them to stay in the space for 6-24 months. During that time they provide some advisory services but also seem to remain pretty hands off.
  • The UX lab helps developers test usability and learn to good experience design. The lab is for-fee but offers some free sessions every week for developers to come in and get their mobile app tested.
  • iHub research does commissioned studies of ICT use patterns in East Africa. One current project seeks to understand how individuals budget for mobile service and trade it off against other costs like food.

Rachel talked about a few of the challenges holding back the iHubers. She said that there isn’t much seed money ($10-100k) to incentivize people to leave their jobs to start a company. Yet she also said that there is too much contest and grant money available to developers without a real business plan. I would expect partnerships between tech and business founders to fill the gap but Rachel said few have made those connections. Developers are afraid that a partner will steal their idea and business people are finding opportunity elsewhere. It sounds like Rachel would argue for smarter money that pushes developers to build viable businesses and incentivizes non-tech types to get involved.

I’ve had a chance to wander around the space, meet a few people and attend a (not great) talk last week. It seems like iHub is doing a good job fostering a developer community but needs to do more to convert freelancers into entrepreneurs.

CORRECTION: The post originally read that not enough seed money in the $5-10k range was available. Rachel corrected me to $10-100k.