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  • Mobilizing Tech Entrepreneurs in AfricaInnovations Case Narrative: iHub
  • Erik Hersman (bio)

Seth Kigen stepped onto the brightly lit stage in Nairobi, Kenya, for an event that was the culmination of the many weeks Seth and his partner had spent doing late-night coding, hardware hacking, and thinking through business strategies. Each year, entrepreneurs pitch their ideas on the Pivot East stage, the showcase for East Africa’s best early-stage ideas for mobile apps and services. This year, over 200 applicants from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda were battling to see who would walk away with the $10,000 prizes given out in each of the five categories. Seth was just one of 25 people chosen to tell about their ideas and try to convince a panel of judges, in addition to potential investors, media representatives, and investors, that their team was worth betting on.

Seth intended to win the $10,000 prize for his mPoultry system, which helped farmers monitor their chicken brooders with a device comprising a microcontroller and three sensors for gauging temperature, light, and humidity. The first-generation prototype plugged directly into the IDEOS—at approximately $80 the world’s cheapest Android phone, often referred to in Kenya as the IDIOT phone.

Seth built mPoultry around the simple problem East African farmers had of losing up to 80 percent of their poultry stock as a result of unmonitored brooders. The mPoultry device sends text messages to a farmer when his brooders’ environment becomes abnormal, which allows him to adjust quickly to issues that otherwise might not be caught for hours. A device like this could cut the time a farmer spends monitoring his brooders by 50 percent, while also helping him raise healthier hens and cut losses by up to 90 percent.

But mPoultry did not win the competition. This year the overall winner came from the entertainment category, where Ma3Racer took the prize with a Matatu racing game that has been downloaded 150,000 times in over 200 countries. Last year’s overall winner was MedAfrica, an app that enables patients and doctors to communicate through mobile phones.

What happened in East Africa to get all these startups on stage? The tech scene in Kenya (and in Africa more generally) has grown significantly and uniquely, to [End Page 59] some extent because of the distinctive East African environment. My colleagues and I, all of whom are committed to fostering a bigger and more enabling tech environment in Nairobi and throughout the region, have built institutions that leverage the strengths of our corner of Africa and seek to address the weaknesses. Here I tell the story of some of those projects—the iHub, the m:lab, and Pivot East—and describe Africa’s tech environment, including the success stories that have already or soon will come out of the region.

East Africa’s Tech Environment

There are only five or six cities in Africa that have the right make-up to be a technology hub. It takes a combination of location, talent, policies, entrepreneurial culture, infrastructure, and money. For my two cents, I’ll give you Nairobi, Lagos, Accra, Cape Town, Cairo, and possibly Dakar. However, in any region there can be only one city with the critical mass to be number one. In East Africa, Nairobi has the advantage of location, climate, and a history of being relatively stable. The city also has a lot of available capital, although most of it still goes into sure money-makers, like land and buildings. Nevertheless, Nairobi has become a major hub for mobile phone application innovation in Africa, providing a regional center with a critical mass of quality programmers, universities, technology corporations, and a government focused on information and communications technology (ICT) growth, all of which are necessary for tech entrepreneurs to grow and flourish.

These factors have helped make Nairobi the first choice of many international NGOs, including the United Nations Environmental Program, the only major UN program headquartered outside the U.S. or Europe. This, of course, makes it attractive to a lot of smaller NGOs that operate in Kenya and in more troubled zones, such as Sudan, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of...


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