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Kenya leads Africa in mobile and internet access and is working to finish "the last mile" of connecting the entire country. It has used mobile technology to pioneer mobile money transferring and crowdsourcing crisis information.Technology has the potential to lift Kenya into the developed world, but if investment is not done right, it could widen the gap between the haves and the have nots.The Innovation Trail's Ryan Delaney recently returned from a reporting trip to the East African country through a fellowship with the International Center for Journalists. His reporting takes a look at Kenya's own innovation economy.

The different sides of entrepreneurship in Kenya

Ryan Delaney

The Innovation Trail's Ryan Delaney recently returned from a reporting trip to Kenya. This is the second story in the series. You can find the rest of his reporting here.

Inside an office building along the main road leading west out of downtown Nairobi, is the heart Kenya’s startup community.

On the fourth floor, noisy kids are huddled around tables inside the iHub, Nairobi’s startup incubator space. Counselors are giving instructions to campers as they learn to build circuits and program small robots. The finished product zips around the floor, bumping into feet as kids crowd around in excitement.

When a summer camp hasn’t invaded the space, the iHub’s office is full of young programmers working on a mobile app or website.

The iHub has a few of the main ingredients needed for a good startup incubator anywhere: high speed internet, a ready supply of coffee and a foosball table. It set up shop in the donated space three years ago.

"Nobody thought we could ever be able to fill it; it just seemed massive. But now we keep expanding and hoping that other people will move out," said Mugethi Gitau, the incubator's community manager. The iHub now takes up nearly three floors of the building.

The lion's share

As the iHub has grown, so has the startup community and the products it’s developing. Some of iHub’s graduates now have their own offices in the building.

"[At first], we had a lot of, in Kiswahili we say 'm-vitus' or 'm-things', just a mobile phone app that could do something," she said. "But now we are going more towards developing something that can solve a certain problem or address a certain issue."

"We have a lot of challenges that technology is giving us an opportunity to fix," chimes in Mark Kamau, who runs the iHub’s ‘user experience lab’ on the first floor. He helps startups try out their ideas in the real world.

The startup culture here in Nairobi is working to expand the cluster’s momentum, Kamau said.

"Nairobi, obviously by virtue of being the capital city, seems to enjoy the lion’s share of the attention and of course the infrastructure," he said.

Rural entrepreneurship

That’s quite true when you venture outside of the bustle of Kenya’s cities. A few hours’ drive outside of Nairobi, entrepreneurship takes on a very different look.

Credit Ryan Delaney / WRVO
James Muturi replenishes the water supply on his new chicken farm. "I Google sometimes," the young entrepreneur said.

With the slide of a heavy bolt, James Muturi walks into a newly built chicken coop to replenish the bird's water supply.

He started raising the chickens and growing crops with a few others after going through a training program for rural youth entrepreneurship run by the organization TechnoServe, called STRYDE.

Instructor Margaret Ngetha says those in their early 20’s, like Muturi, can easily become unproductive in the rural economy.

"A majority of the youth are idle," she said while visiting the farm. "And when they’re idle, they will get into drugs, they’ll get into crime and they’ll become a burden on their families."

TechnoServe gives participants three months of business training and then mentors them as they get their businesses up and running.

For Muturi, who has aspirations of being one of the largest chicken farmers in Kenya, using the internet is a different business practice than those his age at the iHub.

"I Google sometimes," he said. "Sometimes I research the markets."

Credit Ryan Delaney / WRVO
Susan Wanjiru uses used water bottles to sell her homemade soaps.

And then there’s the enterprise of Susan Wanjiru, who makes her own soap and sells it in used water bottles she collects. She sells it in town and to a few nearby schools. But her one-person operation is limited.

"To have my own bottles, to do my own packaging without using other people’s labels or even bottles," she aspires to. "Right now I’m only able to make 60 liters (per batch) and all those who need the soap, they are many." 

The hurdles to growth facing Wanjiru and farmer Muturi are similar to what startups back at the iHub face: difficulty getting enough capital and resources to grow their business. 

You can find more from Ryan's trip to East Africa on his Tumblr, Will Trade for Elephants.

WRVO/Central New York reporter for the Innovation Trail
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