East Africa: Kenya's Tech Scene Ripe for Exporting to the World Says iHub Founder
May 10, 2015
Photo: Akilah Net
Erik Hersman, far left, with President Uhuru Kenyatta.[/caption] Nairobi — Erik Hersman is a man of many identities: founder, father, facilitator, partner, CEO, director, and instigator, to name just a few. However, he is best known for founding iHub, the first and biggest tech hub in Africa. The Nairobi-based hub has just celebrated five years. It serves as a central locus for the region’s tech community, bringing together everyone from entrepreneurs and hackers to investors and advisors. In spite of iHub’s expansion into research, incubation, and testing, Hersman maintains that the organization’s core focus remains building a tech community. In addition to iHub, Hersman co-founded the mobile app Ushahidi, which allows users to share breaking news via SMS. He’s also the CEO of BRCK, which produces a durable backup generator for the Internet, and a general partner in the Savannah Fund. Did we mention he’s a father of three and a prolific blogger to boot? Akilah Net’s Ken Macharia caught up with Hersman during a rare lull in his workday. In a wide-ranging interview, Hersman shares everything from his plans for iHub to his latest project. Excerpts follow. How did the idea to build the iHub come about? The idea for the iHub was a seed that was first planted back in 2008. We have this annual tech event, which we call Barcamp Nairobi. It was after one of these events that a few of us thought, “Why is it that we see each other once or twice a year?” In 2009, the Ushahidi founders got together and thought we could raise the money to set up the space for a tech community. Three months later, we reached out to the small community for help with the flooring, logo design, and network cabling of the space. From the beginning, we made it clear that we were building a community, and for the last five years, the community has grown from strength to strength. How has iHub contributed to the growth of innovation hubs in Africa? The iHub was the first one, and we are the largest, not just in Kenya but on the continent of Africa. But, what is more important, is that we know our part of the ecosystem — and that is community mobilization, while other guys focus on creatives and incubation. We do have an incubator, a research arm, and user-experience testing, but community remains our focus. The iHub helps create a bigger model for governments, media organizations, investors, and companies to access talent and find each other. So we still need incubators; we still need research labs at universities and creative spaces for artists. We don’t want to replace them; we want to augment them. What has been the sustainability model you have adopted at the iHub? Every tech hub on the continent has to deal with this all the time. One of the things we decided from the outset is that we were not going to charge for membership. We knew we had to come up with the money elsewhere after the initial funding by Ushahidi.
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