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Unofficially known as the ‘Kenyan tech headquarters’, the Innovation hub — abbreviated as iHub — has been in existence for more than 5 years now. This title is well befitting as it hosts more than 120 events in a year, was the first tech hub to be founded in Kenya and was also voted as Africa’s most innovative company by Fast Company in 2014.
TechPoint spent some time with Evans Campbell — PR & Communications Manager at iHub — where he spoke to us about how they started, why they exist, their initiatives and plans for the future.
Tell me about the iHub , what do you do?
The iHub is a part co-working space, a part pre-incubator; allowing early-stage innovators to connect with others and grow their ideas into products/services from the ground up; and part vector for investors, connecting people with promising ideas to the right kind of people for funding and/or investment.
Where did the idea to start the iHub come from? Who or what inspired its start?
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 called SkunkWorks. They would meet frequently to discuss matters around Kenyan tech. During one of their meetups 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 — came up with the idea to start the iHub. He sought funding from Omidyar Network and Hivos through Ushahidi; which he had already co-founded. In March 2010, the iHub opened its doors.
Does the space fund itself now?
While we do have some sources of revenue, we do not entirely fund ourselves. We also get grant funding from companies like Google through their Google for Entrepreneurs arm and have Oracle, Chase Bank and IBM among our corporate partners. We also have project-related funding which is tied to some of the work that we do with/for certain organisations and some of that is used to keep the lights on.
How many employees does the iHub have? Are they temporary or permanent?
We have about 50 permanent staff and do take on interns from time to time based on organisational needs.
Who form your membership and how many members do you have?
We have over 14,000 members. There are 3 types of membership. The first is white membership which is online/virtual and this has ~13,900 members.
Next, there is green membership, which is free and is the pre-incubator tier of membership with 100 members. It is application-based and each year, we put out a call for applications for people with tech-based ideas to be pre-incubated in the space and be part of this multidimensional ecosystem.
Lastly we have red membership, which consists of more established startups that pay to have semi-permanent office space at the iHub. We currently have 16 red members.
What is the demand in the market for spaces such as the iHub?
I think the demand has definitely grown and it’s the right kind of demand because it’s community-driven. We try to push other spaces to grow. We have worked with LakeHub in Kisumu (Western Kenya) and Swahili Box in Mombasa (Coastal region). There is definitely much more demand as Kenya is becoming more decentralized with the county government system and other regions want something that will stand out for them in terms of innovation and tech.
Tell us about the challenges you have faced as iHub and how you overcame them.
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.
Our initiatives are a core part of our revenue structure. iHub Consulting coordinates highly-skilled teams for interesting tech projects involving software development and project management. iHub Research which carries out funded qualitative and quantitative studies to determine how tech is impacting the masses both locally and regionally. iHub UX Lab works with large companies, and start-ups alike to foster design thinking principles — placing users at the centre of any product development process. Each initiative has developed over time to meet an identified gap in the tech scene.
We are working on adding revenue streams to complement hiring out our space and offering consulting services through our initiatives.
What role do you believe the iHub plays in Kenya?
As part of our vision, we believe that we are catalysing the growth of the tech community and judging by recent events, our vision is gradually coming true. We continue to support initiatives like Swahili Box, LakeHub and DeHub at Dedan Kimathi University in Nyeri as they look to grow tech communities in their region.
We have also directly/indirectly nurtured so many startups that have gone through our ecosystem and become successful — over 150 in fact. The thing that makes us unique is that we do not push people to go in a certain direction: we give them the freedom to discover their entrepreneurship path through trial (and sometimes error) while encouraging them to learn from and share their experiences. We like to call this “engineering serendipity”.
What are the more exciting start-ups that have come from the iHub ?
Some of the most renowned ones would be Wezatele, which recently got acquired by AFB for their logistical services solution. The founder, Hilda Moraa, was a long-time iHub member and formerly worked with iHub Research. There is also 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. It already has over 15,000 registered users.
Future plans on expansion?
That is a question we get quite a bit. We do not envision a physical expansion where we have something in Mombasa, Kisumu, Nyeri etc. as we already have other hubs doing that. We want to empower people who have solutions that work for these particular regions to keep growing and serving their communities.
Where do you see the iHub in the next 5 years?
We will definitely have switched up a few things based on what our community needs e.g. our membership models. We are looking to expand on what we are currently giving. For example, iHub Consulting has launched a craftsmanship training series that aims to sharpen the skills of local developers.
We will also be the big brother, 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. All this ties back to our mission of connecting people, supporting startups and surfacing information.
With the GES being recently held in Kenya, has that had any benefits to the iHub and your start-ups/ initiatives?
In the run up to GES, we had quite a few events like Pivot East 2015 and The Case Foundation’s Pitch for Impact which were a good opportunity for startups to pitch for investment. While, there was a lot of promises made even in speeches by President Obama, the real financial commitments in terms of investment have been hard to trace. These might take some time and we are waiting to see how it goes. However, from a visibility standpoint, it definitely put Kenya on the map.
In conclusion, what would you say are 3 unique things about the iHub?
One of them for sure is that we engineer serendipity. We do not push people in a certain direction; we allow them to try, fail, learn and revise their ideas, connect with others and explore their limitless potential. By putting a lot of smart people in one room, we have seen great innovations emerge.
We also provide a unique opportunity for our members to interact with a rich ecosystem i.e. m:lab, which supports mobile startups, Gearbox for hardware startups and our initiatives iHub Consulting, Research and UX Lab.
If you are looking to get in on the action in the Kenyan tech scene, iHub is definitely the place to be.