Nathan Wyeth

The Best Ideas of 2010 – iHub Nairobi

Editor’s Note: This post is one in a series on the Best Ideas of 2010 for the BoP. We asked the NextBillion staff writers and editors to share what they considered to be the year’s most impactful – or potentially impactful – concepts, startups or initiatives that came to fruition in 2010.

I am not the first to laud the iHub in Nairobi (and this is not the first time I’ve written about it). But what I saw upon my first visit during the closing weeks of the year is just how right it is for the Nairobi technology community. That community is small, but it’s also behind some of the most exciting examples of realizing the potential of mobile technology in development. So I’d not only call the iHub one of the best ideas of 2010, but one of the most timely.

Contrary to what I expected when I first heard about it, the iHub is not an outpost of technology – it’s a clubhouse for innovators in the hotbed of mobile innovation that’s most relevant to the majority of mobile phone users in the world. If it didn’t exist today, by next year it would be overdue.

The place is merely a large, high-ceilinged room on the top floor of a small office building off a main road outside of the city center. But every software engineer I’ve met in Nairobi – if we weren’t meeting at the iHub – has mentioned the iHub in glowing terms. I asked one software developer who works in Nairobi for a company with operations there as well as in the UK and South America where he worked before the iHub. At home by himself he said (which actually shouldn’t have been too hard for me to figure out).

Although counterintuitive at first, the value of open, collaboration-oriented workspaces for technologists is far greater in a place like Nairobi as compared to London or San Francisco, for instance. After all, how many places offer reliable wifi, outlets, coffee, and relative quiet in San Francisco? And how many places can you get that – plus whiteboards, beanbag chairs, and good company for extended design or coding sessions – in a typical urban center in the developing world?

And Nairobi is ready for it. There are dozens of small, scrappy, sometimes growing, technology companies and teams of independent programmers who are building the tools and back-ends powering the mobile money revolution taking off in Kenya and growing more sophisticated and expansive each quarter. There are also hundreds of young programmers who know that they are at the center of something exciting but don’t otherwise have the tools for starting something or navigating such a landscape.

Two weeks ago Russel Simmons, co-founder of Yelp, and Jawed Karim, co-founder of YouTube, now both with i/o Ventures stopped during a tour of East Africa in Nairobi. They spoke to a full house, at the iHub of course, about how they started their own companies and what they did back in California.

Speaking from experience, it is being in environments like this, with first-hand exposure to role models who can speak to the challenges of pioneering new ideas – in new ventures or in existing organizations – that make it understandable how one can do this oneself.

The iHub has plans for expansion with a mobile technology lab and others are already copying its model. There are many additional inputs needed to grow the innovation ecosystem in Nairobi – but few places have more potential for impact from such an ecosystem existing than Nairobi, which has otherwise been for decades the premier redoubt of slow-moving UN agencies in Africa. The iHub brings together the people who will be at the center of it.

Impact Assessment, Technology