Aurelie Salvaire

Frugal Innovation Meets IT Momentum : Why Kenya is emerging as a leader of both

In her TED Talk, “The danger of a single story“, my favourite Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, explains how dangerous it is to reduce a person, a culture, or a continent to a unique and biased perception. The hillarious viral YouTube video “Africa for Norway,” where African singers join together to spur fellow Africans to donate radiators to Norway and help the chilly people there, deploys a disruptive angle to underline the notion of African countries as needy and corrupted places.

But the truth is we have so much to learn from countries making a quantum leap from traditional markets to the equivalent 3G in a couple of years. As The Misfit economy book demostrates, innovation often happens in the most surprising places, and even pirates, terrorists, computer hackers and inner city gangs can teach us some interesting lessons.

Without going so off the beaten track, the August edition of Courrier International, Africa 3.0, celebrates the renewal of the continent through its most promising innovators and the new relationship out of “creativity, fraternity and tolerance.” So when the A factor decided to scout for the next Innovation Tour, Nairobi emerged as an evident answer. The Kenyan capital has been rising in the last year as the most promising IT hub on the continent’s eastern shore.

Apart from the grassroots innovations, Kenya also is emerging as a perfect experimentation field for “frugal innovation” for multinational companies. Google, IBM, and Microsoft have installed their regional headquarters there. Following Nokia, IBM is now opening its R&D lab in Nairobi.

Almost on the same time zone as Europe, English speaking, easily reachable by major airlines overnight and now denominated the Silicon Savannah, the city is hosting an incredible critical mass of start-ups and tech entrepreneurs. Incubators, such as 88mph or GrowthAfrica – most of them supported by foreign capital – are to identifying the next generation of promising entrepreneurs. In October, Demo Africa will be showcasing many of these promising start-ups from all over Africa. And this is just scratching the surface.

Our tour (and I would argue the Nairobi IT scene) begins at iHUB, a thriving ecosystem of start-ups and programmers which has soon become the place to be in terms of networking events. At the end of Ngong Road, the mall hosting the iHUB is also the home of Ushaidi, the world famous crowdsourcing map, meaning “testimony” in Swahili, initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008. Erik Hersmann, the founder of this open source project, which allows users to crowdsource crisis information to be sent via mobile, explains how Nairobi is growing and how Ushaidi is now working on a back-up generator for Internet.

Within a few square meters, one can meet Amrit Pal, one of the founders of Kopo Kopo, a system which enables small and medium businesses to accept mobile payments and build relationships with their customers. Or you might run into Kenfield Griffith from MSurvey, allowing to collect data and information through cell phone.

Many of these new firms are surfing on the success of M-PESA, the largest mobile money network launched by Safaricom, Kenya’s major phone operator. Through any phone, even the most simple ones, one can exchange cash for M-PESA “credit” and send money to the other side of the country or pay a coffee in a local cafeteria. Given the cell phone penetration, this represents now a serious threat to the traditional banking system.

But Kenya is not only about technology. With millions of people living with less than 1 dollar a day, many entrepreneurs have developed innovative solutions for the base of the pyramid:

  • In terms of water and sanitation, Iko Toilet is now providing the first mobile vacuum toilet system of its kind in Africa and Sanergy is developing economically sustainable distributed sanitation infrastructure for informal settlements.

  • Barefoot Power is providing affordable lighting and phone charging products specifically for low income populations that do not have access to electricity. They work in collaboration with women’s groups, especially with CARE and its major initiative Light up a village.

  • Mobius Motors is a Kenyan car company that iscurrently rolling out its second fully functional prototype.

  • In the field of agriculture, One Acre Fund is experiencing exponential growth providing package of seed, advice and training to farmers in order to improve their productivity and income.

  • And finally, Jacaranda Health, which is fully dedicated to safe motherhood in East Africa by setting up mobile clinics in maternal health delivery.

The major slums of Kibera or Mathare are also thriving environments for this “frugal innovation”. Fred Odol, the curator of TEDxMathare, recently too guided me along the unpaved road to expose more untapped ideas from the grassroots level.

MYSA, for example, is empowering youth of underprivileged areas through sports activities and has became one of the world’s leading sport-for-development organisations, according to Ashoka.

In Kibera, the most “famous” slum in town sometimes absorbs all the attention especially after urban artist JR used rooftops and trains as a canvas for the “Women are heroes” campaign. But several initiativessuch as the Hot Sun Foundation film school, which is dentifying and developing youth talent in East Africa to tell their stories on film, or The Community Cooker, which is turning rubbish into energy, also flourish there.

Female gamechangers are also extremely active. Akili Dada empowers the next generation of African women leaders through its incubator, which invests in high-achieving young African women. Akira Chix teaches IT to women and girls, and the regional office of Samasource outsources basic coding or programming tasks to youth and women from underprivileged areas. Meanwhile, Shop Soko directly connects artisans to a global market place of customers.

Yet, as Simon Stumpf, the director of Ashoka East Africa says: “Impact investment is still in its infancy here.” Many entrepreneurs express the need for more mentoring and partnerships in order to reach scale.

The investors already present (Invested Development, Village Capital, Acción, Helios Investment, Jacana Partners) consider the Kenya ecosystem more early stage than other countries like South Africa, for example. The blossoming of entrepreneur competitions also led to a perversion of the system and the apparition of “competrepreneurs” who might only look for grants, but who weren’t necessarily interested in setting up a sustainable business. Seed funding and mentoring is still extremely necessary in order to ensure a full scale up of these initiatives.

This vibrant environment is fueled by a a promising generation of makers (Fablab), activists (check out Powa254), artists (Kuona Trust or Godown Arts Center) or fashion brands (Kiko Romeo or Savannah Chic) who are shaking up Kenya’s traditional ecosystem.

And the new four-story sound studio unlike anything in Africa of Spielworks, a local Kenya TV production company that just received a large infusion of investment is demostrating that Kenya is moving in multimedia as well.

So, after only a few days in town, our minds are full of projects, contacts and initiatives waiting for more connections and visibility. Many of these businesses and organizations will be stops on our upcoming tour. Coming from a relatively demoralized, old continent, exposure to such a vibrant ecosystem is definitely a boost in terms of inspiration. But it’s also important frame engagement in Kenya not simply as an interesting African economic story, but as a conversation of equals and a source of mutual, global learning.

To learn more about the Nairobi Innovation tour, email us at

Aurelie Salvaire is the founder of the A Factor and the curator of Innovation Tours.