The story of Njeri¬†Chelimo is a compelling one, and a case study for the proverb “where there is a will, there is a path”. This 20 y.o Kenyan girl had planned to attend a hack school in New York a few months ago. The 12-week program was free to attend, and would be a great place both to improve her skills and meet people. But even with justifying she had matters to attend in Kenya and no will to stay over the legal period, her visa was refused. The end? Quite not: “I decided I would start my own hack school here, in Nairobi“.
When I met Njeri, her students were quite busy as they had 4 weeks left (out of 12) to finish a project they can do by groups. This is a way to turn a lesson into reality, and put to practice what all the mentors and teachers have been sharing the last 2 months. For the faculty, Njeri turned to her network and Twitter, where she grabbed every occasion of a foreigner dropping by Nairobi to share his experience with the students. She was able to have coders, creatives and entrepreneurs from San Francisco, Australia and other countries.
The school is free, but of course it has a cost for Njeri, be it the two rooms she rents in a shared residence nearby iHub, the main tech community of Nairobi. “The first room is where we have the courses. The second room is to allow each team to brainstorm and work on their projects, I want to put more big pillows and couches, and also boards to put post-it notes everywhere”. The rent is the main chunk of her budget, but again, social media was the best way to fund the project. Her $15000 crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo¬†pays for roughly a year of the project, then, she will have to find another source of revenue.
The value proposition of the school is not coding as such: tutorial are widely available online. Njeri wants to work “around the code” on the business, the management, the marketing, the consumer needs, so that the students would work on tech that fits to Kenya right now. 2 of the students projects are on on the travel industry, a key asset of the country, where ICT can definitely improve the experience – and the conversion – of visitors.
Where to locate the Nairobi Dev School in the local startup ecosystem? “Well, even before something like Startup Weekend”, says Njeri. “With both tech and business skills, you can then go to a hackathon with more impact. Developpers need to write, to identify problems, to have this impact”.
Njeri’s project needs to be thought about in the broader context of innovation in Africa. Eustace Maboreke works at Afralti, a center for excellence in ICT operating for more than 20 years, and Martin Obuya is a polyalent profile (though engineer in satellites communications) at iHub. They both envision iHub in Nairobi as a blender where the maximum collision must be created between people, projects, and potential funders. As both actors and keen observers of the tech scene in Kenya ans in Africa overall, they also warn against short-sightedness. For instance, the success of MPesa has pushed many developers and entrepreneurs into the world of finance and banking. As a result, other local needs are less addressed, such as the digitization of culture, one of Africa’s asset, or solutions to the jams of Africa’s cities.
Rather than just focusing on breeding startups in community workspace, which is common in most parts of the world, Eustace’s mission is to have the core concepts of the startup economy (prototyping, incubation) migrate to the more traditional SMEs and big corporations, so as to turn them into intrapreneurs. Startupify the old business, in a nutshell. To do so, Afritel runs programs of incubation, but also assessment of skills for a better placement of the youth. “For kids, right now, it’s all about apps, but maybe they have a profile that can fit better elsewhere”, says Eustace.
Building a genuine capability for innovation also means learning to deal with potential and funders. The difference between “impatient” (VCs, angels to a lesser extent) and “patient” (mostly government-sponsored, through grants) investment must be learnt. Many ecosystems players know it: turning a generation of successful entrepreneurs into mentors for the 2nd generation is key to ensure that a culture is growing. In Kenya, it’s easy to be seduced by a few millions, then buy a car, go party, and retire early. “We need to incubate not necessarily for growth in a first time, but to retain entrepreneurs”, says Martin.
The potential of Africa is huge, with 60% of the population under 25, but it has to be harnessed within a long-term frame to gain in autonomy and avoid being squeezed by short-term financial stints.