Kenya: Secondary cities building their own tech hubs

LakeHub is bringing together the tech-enthusiasts of western Kenya.

LakeHub is bringing together the tech-enthusiasts of western Kenya.

Kenya’s capital Nairobi is globally recognised as a technology hub. Earlier this year it was ranked the “most intelligent” city in Africa in a report by the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF), a decision arrived at in part due to the city’s technology ecosystem. Nairobi serves as regional headquarters for global tech giants such as Google, IBM and Intel, and is home to multiple start-ups, investors and innovation hubs and accelerators.

But now other Kenyan cities also want a piece of the action, and have started building their own innovation spaces and tech communities. Last September technology co-working space LakeHub opened in Kenya’s third largest city Kisumu, while SwahiliBox recently launched at the port city of Mombasa.

Tech-revolution moving beyond Nairobi

LakeHub and SwahiliBox are modelled on the Nairobi-based iHub, a co-working space for tech entrepreneurs set up in 2010 that has played an instrumental role in the development of Nairobi’s technology ecosystem.

According to Erik Hersman, iHub co-founder and advisor to LakeHub and SwahiliBox, Nairobi’s tech industry will always be bigger. But there is a need to build ecosystems in other towns.

“Nairobi will always have more money, more start-ups, more media… but where do the people who come to Nairobi come from? We need to start seeding those environments with the right smaller tech hubs,” says Hersman. “Technology goes beyond Nairobi so we need to go to secondary cities. These places need their own spaces where local technology champions can come together, meet and help accelerate their ecosystem.”

Tech hub on Lake Victoria

LakeHub operates out of a small office in the middle of Kisumu city. Located on the shores of Lake Victoria, Kisumu is mostly known for trade, agriculture and fishing activities. Although Kisumu is the hub for the greater western Kenya region and hosts campuses for over a dozen universities, most graduates relocate to Nairobi for employment opportunities.

“Technology shouldn’t be a business of Nairobi [only],” says LakeHub co-founder James Odede. The 23-year-old studied computer science at Maseno University near Kisumu. At the time there was no tech ecosystem to talk about.

“I would often take an eight-hour bus ride to Nairobi overnight to attend tech events during the day then take another bus at night to go back to school,” Odede recalls. “Kisumu has 17 satellite universities so there is a big student population. Many students are interested in tech, but they do not have a lot of skills. There are no mentors, no success stories.”

In 2013, a year before graduating, Odede met other tech-enthusiasts who were keen to build a local ecosystem. So they began organising informal meetings for techies at coffee shops and gradually built a community through social media and a mailing list. Initially the events attracted a handful of people, but attendance grew and created a need for a co-working space.

LakeHub currently has 1,200 members, predominantly students, and hopes to become the nerve centre of tech innovation in western Kenya. The space hosts an average of 20 people per day – mostly programmers, creatives, and entrepreneurs interested in financial resources, partnerships, mentorship, training and networking opportunities.

Building skills

Odede says the innovation space seeks to develop technology skills among local youth and spur job creation and entrepreneurship. It organises monthly ‘hackathons’ that bring together entrepreneurs to develop solutions to their everyday challenges. It has also implemented projects teaching children programming and entrepreneurial skills.

“The demand for software services is only going to increase. We want youth here to acquire skills they can use to easily go into employment or start businesses. Right now [tech] companies have no motivation to be based in Kisumu. They can find developers in Nairobi but that will gradually change when Kisumu starts churning interesting innovations,” says Odede.

So far three start-ups have come out of LakeHub, including MobiDawa, an invention of Odede which reminds patients when to take medicine, how to take it, and possible side effects.

Long way to go

Although Kisumu’s is still a small ecosystem, Odede says it has potential to become vibrant. But it has a long way to go. Getting the same level of support from government and the tech giants that support Nairobi’s ecosystem is hard because they want to see big numbers.

“We would like to work with big tech companies but they have high expectations. They ask ‘how many programmers are we going to get from your space?’. I think they also know that they can get everything in Nairobi, and that makes it hard to build these partnerships,” explains Odede.

He believes decentralising the tech industry will boost adoption and improve Kenya’s standing as an innovation hub. Bridging knowledge gaps among youth, and equipping them with entrepreneurship skills will also encourage them to develop solutions to local challenges as opposed to waiting for solutions built in Nairobi that might be out of touch with local realities.

“The end game is to make Kisumu attractive for other companies. Businesses will go where there is raw materials and talent.”