iHub in Nairobi is the place to be

Nairobi day 4. It is no wonder that investors flock here and it’s the talk of town whether one speaks with telecoms or the World Bank.

iHub, is a heaven, workplace and hive of inspiration; in any techies world it is an oasis of creativity and innovation.

Its 8.30am and I am at the fourth floor of Bishops Magua Plaza Ngong Rd – ihub. It is already full of people; each and everyone has an open laptop and are either totally focused on their screen or sharing knowledge or ideas with a colleague. Some are seated on straight desks as they probably sat during school years, some are by coffee tables in more comfy chairs, some are launching on plane-like-seats tapping away on their keyboards.

iHub opened one year ago June 2010 and it became an instant success. But before iHub was Ushahidi a crowdsourcing platform. ihub wouldn’t have been without Ushahidi, which has its own unique story dating back to the 2007-8 election.

First the election was peaceful, and then it became chaos. Spontaneous violence broke out in various places of the country when the election results were delayed. When the incumbent President Kibaki was announced as the winner the frustration and violence went berserk.

The Kenyan government’s reaction to the chaos was to ban live media. Ory Okolloh, a Kenyan activist, lawyer and blogger sent out a plea via her blog Kenyan Pundit to by pass the traditional media and counteract the censorship by making the chaos visible online. Other techies and activists responded to her plea. They put their heads together and within 48 hours the crowdsourcing platform Ushahidi was made ready to channel real time reports on the violence.

Ushahidi means testimony in Swahili, its built on open source and since 2008 its been used in 120 countries including Haiti and Japan, translated to 88 different languages and deployed 50.000 times. Today Ushahidi is the name of the organization and other products have been built in its name – all non-profit and all open source. Recently  Ushahidi won two big international awards: The Knights News Challenge Award  and the 15th Annual Webby Award

ihub builds on the ethos of Ushahidi, Eric Hersman, one of the founders explains. Like Ushahidi iHub is community rooted and is about sharing, learning and giving back to the very same community, which made Ushahidi necessary and possible.

After 2008 the techie community of Nairobi realized that they only met each other at conferences and never got a chance to share and bounce ideas off each other in between the conferences.

For a while the core team behind Ushahidi tried to raise funds to create a techie and designers hub, but no one was interested in funding them. At some point the team decided to go ahead anyway. With the help of Hivos and Omidyar  iHub opened a year ago in June 2010.

Instantly other big players came on board Google, Microsoft , Nokia – but too late to have much to say in the way the place is set up, run and branded. From the logo to the ground rules of the place, its all self made. Ground rules include “white” membership open for everyone online; presently more than 4000 people; “green” membership, which are for 250 people who can come and use the facilities at the iHub (best internet in town, Pete’s coffee and a chair to sit on) and “red” membership for a price of 10.00 Kenya Shillings reserved for individuals or start-ups with an idea they can implement within 6 month.

The space is also open for small or big events. Members don’t pay to run an event, companies do and the calendar is always full of something. The events ranks from developers meetings including “Bit Magic” where only techies are allowed to participate (because the rest of us don’t understand a word of it!) to inspirational talks by hot shots in the ICT world and gatherings, workshops, forums and competitions for example PIVOT or IP048.

Other initiatives are streaming out of ihub;  Afrilabs which is a network of similar hubs across Africa, researchers ihub in technology, a mentor program and m:Lab, which opened last week. m:lab East Africa is the region’s new business incubator for companies developing mobile applications. Nokia and others do advertise at m:lab which occupy the floor below iHub in Bishops Magua Plaza.

Asked where all this is going, Erik Hersman answers:

We want the next Ushahidi or an even more revolutionary solutions to grow out of iHub, we want to help companies get started, we want everyone to get inspired and become more business astute, we want Afrilabs to function all over Africa, we want it all to grow…….

He stops himself, pauses and says: We have so many ideas, but the only thing I know for sure is that there is nowhere else than Kenya any techy brain would rather be at the moment.

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