Sun, Nov 04, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Kenya building a digital future in Africa’s silicon savannah

By David Smith  /  The Guardian, NAIROBI

The current nerve center for Nairobi’s tech community is the “iHub,” which brings together entrepreneurs, hackers, designers and investors. It has generated 45 start-up companies since it was founded two years ago. Smart but not luxurious, on a typical day rows of young programmers sit on bright yellow chairs tapping away at laptops.

The iHub was founded by Erik Hersman, an American raised in Kenya and Sudan who blogs under the name “White African.” Initial funding came from the success of Ushahidi, a website initially developed to map reports of post-election violence in Kenya and which has become a platform for “crowdsourcing” and visualizing data used in 156 countries.

“Ushahidi and M-Pesa both prove something,” Hersman said. “If you build it in Africa, it will work anywhere. There’s a whole strata around that world that needs products that won’t be built in Europe.”

The iHub has been visited by industry luminaries such as Marissa Mayer, the president of Yahoo, and Stephen Elop, the chief executive of Nokia.

“People from the US or Europe come to Africa because they think there’s more upside. It’s the last blue ocean for tech. It’s untouched still,” Hersman, 36, said.

“People here have more spending power now than 10 years ago. At the same time everything related to tech is decreasing costs. You have a great opportunity where people say, ‘I can get in while it’s still nascent.’ It’s still raw here. It’s good to get market share before the big dogs come in,” he said.

One of the mobile apps operating from the iHub is M-Farm, which allows farmers to get wholesale market information and sell their products via basic mobile phones.

Linda Kwamboka, 24, one of three female co-founders, said: “It was August 2010 and we saw so many farmers complaining about unfair commodity prices, saying: ‘We’re not getting the benefit of our sweat.’”

M-Farm is now updated daily by data collectors on the ground and has been used by more than 5,400 farmers.

“Technology is driving so many things,” Kwamboka said. “Entrepreneurs are coming up and there’s an opportunity to change people’s lives.”

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