I posted a tweet yesterday afternoon: “The good news: I’ve found the co-working space I’d been searching for. The bad news: it’s in Nairobi.”
I’ve spent most of the past two days at the iHub, part of the vast (non-profit) corporate empire that is Ushahidi. I’m lucky enough to have known three of Ushahidi’s founders from before their launch of their crowdsourcing platform, and my friends invited me to join their board of directors. Wednesday afternoon was a board meeting, and members flew arrived from three continents to review a chaotic, crazy and incredibly productive year. A team at the Fletcher School used Ushahidi to coordinate information and relief efforts in the wake of the Haitian earthquakes. A team of bloggers and activists in Russia used Ushahidi to provide aid to people affected by Russia’s forest fires, an effort that was so popular, it briefly broke our system. Ushahidi launched Crowdmap.com, a platform that makes it possible for anyone to start a crowdmapping project with no more than a few mouseclicks, and everyone from individuals to the BBC tried it out.
There’s lots for a board member to understand about Ushahidi – three core products, developers around the world, a web of partnerships and collaborations. One part of the mix I’ve never entirely understood is the iHub, which serves as the team’s Nairobi offices, but is lots more than that.
The space is located on the top floor of a five story building on Ngong Road, one of the major arteries of the city. Across the street from a well-known supermarket, it’s easy to get to via cab or matatu, the minivans that carry the majority of the city’s passengers. The space is open, high-ceilinged, and surrounded by windows. There’s a coffee bar in one corner, staffed by Pete, Nairobi’s barrista champion. Above Pete’s shop is a narrow loft, the offices for the space’s managers – they’ve got access to the servers and other gear, as well as a panoramic view of the room below. They look down on a cluster of worktables, a raised area with couches and comfy chairs, and a loose agglomeration of wooden patio furniture. The walls are vibrant blues and greens, lit by the sun streaming in from all sides. One wall features a half-finished map of Nairobi matatu routes – Ushahidi co-founder Erik Hersman tells me, “so much of this space could have been anywhere in the world, we needed something to remind us of Nairobi.”
By 10am, virtually every seat in the house is taken, occupied by young Kenyans and a few expats, almost all wearning green badges around their necks. These badges are the first clue that the iHub isn’t an extremely hip cybercafe. It’s an incubator, an invitation only space open every day to the 100 entrepreneurs who’ve applied for and won badges from the iHub team. For those who’ve won a green badge, there’s no charge to access the space, which is a pretty amazing asset, as it’s not just an extremely cool space – it’s got some of the fastest connectivity available in he city. Erik tells me that more than 1800 people are members of the iHub, using the online tools the group makes available and coming to selected events. From that pool, 100 pitched projects or ideas that earned them a green badge and membership in this exclusive club. Another small set, wearing red badges, pay 10,000 Ksh (about $125 USD) a month for a reserved desk space and a locker within the shared work space. The rentals help defray the cost of the space, as does renting the room out for technology trainings and events.
The end result of the space, the connectivity and the membership policy is that many of Kenya’s best and brightest young geeks can be found at the iHub on any given day. This helps explain why there’s also a crowd of expats – the iHub has become a pilgrimage stop for people hoping to understand the future of information technology in Kenya, and in the developing world as a whole. In the few hours I spent yesterday, I ran into a CBC crew filming a segment on the center, a reporter with the Economist, and half a dozen visiting NGO professionals, looking for contacts, ideas and insights.
Several of the green-badged folks are old friends from the Kenyan blogosphere, and I spent most of Thursday sitting on a couch, catching up the best and brightest of the Kenyan geeks. Rebecca Wanjiku is one of Kenya’s most talented tech journalists, writing for domestic and international publications, including Global Voices. I hadn’t realized she’s also become a systems integrator, designing, purchasing and installing the essential components of network infrastructure for Nairobi businesses. As we lounge on the couch, Rebecca walks be through the installation work she and her team did procuring the wifi hotspots and servers support the iHub’s users. “Being a journalist is an incredible resource for being an integrator,” she tells me. “You learn who’s reliable and who’s not, who you want to work with… and you see opportunities that others don’t see.”
One of those opportunities involves working with NGOs to help them use social media to reach a Kenyan population that’s rapidly coming online. Rebecca works in this space as well, where she’s a friendly competitor to Daudi Were, the blogger behind the celebrated Mental Acrobatics. Daudi is working with Open Society Institute’s Public Health program, helping organizations around the East African region use new media to reach their audiences. We talk about Facebook, which is catching on in Kenya at a ferocious pace. (In a brief walk through downtown, I encountered Facebook ads plastered throughout a downtown shopping center, and a man pushing a bike with a back fender made of a cardboard Facebook sign.)
Daudi tells me that most Kenyans find Facebook when they complete secondary school – some of their friends stay in their hometowns, while others go to Nairobi, off to university or out of the country. They’re separated physically, but Facebook – which most Kenyans access through their phones, allows them to stay in close touch. Daudi tells me about Ghetto Radio, a station that’s built a youth audience around the idea of being an “underground” station… though it’s probably the most popular station for its target demographic. “They run polls on Facebook and get thousands of responses. Lots of the folks responding can’t actually hear the station.” They heard it when they came to Nairobi on holidays, decided it was cool and now follow it online. “You see guys requesting songs via Facebook – they’re in Eldoret, so they can’t hear them, but it’s a cool way to interact with a station.” Daudi and I talk through the implications of the rise of Facebook for Kenyan politics – given the size of the youth vote, and the number of youth who feel alienated from the political process, the ability to leverage personal social networks to build support for candidates could be a powerful force in Kenya’s next elections.
If this country burns, we burn with it, a video from Kuweni Serious
Rachel Gichinga of Kuweni Serious is thinking about elections as well, and specifically about the importance of attacking apathy, which she identifies as a key evil affecting certain Kenyan communities. She identifies herself as part of a group of educated, well-to-do young Kenyans who have disproportionate power to influence politics, but who are usually sidelined by a sense of frustration and futility. Kuweni Serious, a group that came together in the wake of conflict after the 2007 elections, uses viral video to reach this group of young Kenyans. One of their secret weapons is Jim Chuchu, member of electronica band Just a Band and the man behind the remarkable Makmende viral video. (Kuleni Serious’s videos have the same timeless, sun-drenched look as the Makmende trailer – I’m wondering of one of Kenya’s next tech exports will be an Adobe AfterEffects plug-in that gives you the Chuchu look.) The work Rachel and others in her group are doing reminds me of Enough is Enough and other groups trying to use both political and social issues to convince Nigerian youth that they can have a voice in civic affairs – it’s exciting to think that there’s a movement in different corners of the continent to mobilize youth around the idea that they can and should have a voice in politics.
Jessica Colaco wonders whether the next generation of Kenyan youth are starting to use social media in a different way than peers a decade older. When not managing the iHub, she’s an MBA student at Strathmore University, building experiments to test the ways different groups of Kenyans interact with social media. She suspects that there’s a generation gap and that Kenyans under 25 expect to be in dialog with everyone online, from individuals to corporations. When older Kenyans have problems with Safaricom, she tells me, they complain to one another, while younger ones start messaging the company on Twitter and Facebook, demanding the company respond in much the way we’d expect an individual to. For her, the iHub isn’t just an incubator, but a lab, where she’s able to watch the behavior of Kenyan early adopters change in real time.
Given the richness of the conversation at the iHub, it’s not always the easiest place to get work done. Erik tells me he spends two days a week working from home in the hopes of getting grantwriting and other focused activity done. Limo Taboi is based in the quietest corner of iHub and exudes a sense of calm amd focus that creates a cone of silence around him and his laptop. Better known as “Bankelele“, Limo is Kenya’s top financial blogger, and perhaps, top financial writer. And now he’s the financial manager of Ushahidi, wrestling into submission the finances of an organization with principal players scattered around the world. Blogging at the iHub is a mixed blessing, he tells me – “We’ve got so many great events here, you’d think I’d get blog posts out every day. But I’m so buried in the rest of my work, it’s hard to find the time to get a post into the shape where I can publish it.” My guess is that this is a symptom of the overwhelming nature of the iHub – there’s so much going on, it’s hard to present a thorough picture.
At the board meeting on Wednesday, Erik closed his presentation with a slide titled, “Kenya Matters”. Kenya’s not just part of the narrative behind Ushahidi, a platform used globally but developed by Kenyans to respond to a domestic political crisis. Kenya matters because it’s one of the places where the future of technology is coming into focus, where a generation of creative people are building the future, one experiment at a time. iHub makes sense because it’s the physical manifestation of the creative collaboration that took Ushahidi from idea to project to platform within months. I had to go to Nairobi before I really got it. And now I don’t want to leave.