HOW TO: Create An Innovation Hub in Africa

Last November, I had the rare opportunity of visiting Kenya’s iHub in Nairobi, during the Open Innovation Africa Summit organised by Nokia.

Before then, I’ve been a huge advocate of technology hubs (still am) and have avidly written about how positively cataclysmic their presence could trigger uber-energy and uber-action in any local technology community in Africa.

With the success of the iHub in Kenya, other African countries such as Cameroon and Uganda are keying into this model to jumpstart local technology innovations. But simply replicating the success of the iHub is not just enough, rather there are a few key factors to put into consideration if Nigeria or any other African country desires one.

Erik Hersman, founder of the iHub, summarised his recent post on What Makes the iHub Work, with these words:


“The success of the iHub has come from a strong foundation of advisors and community members who understand their city, their peers and their region.”

Bosun Tijani, Erik Hersman and Loy Okezie at a summit in Kenya

Here are 5 lessons we can learn from Erik Hersman’s essay on what makes the iHub work.

1. Build an independently-run and community-owned space


Although Erik’s organisation, Ushahidi built the space with funding from Omidyar Network and Hivos, the iHub is an independent Ushahidi initiative. Though the Ushahidi team has full access to the space, they use it the same way everyone else in the community does. Ushahidi realises that trying to “own” the space would fail, just as it would if it had been named the “Google iHub” or the “Nokia Innovation Hub”, Erik points outs.

2. L’esprit de cours


According to Erik, the community is the heart of all that happens at the iHub. It’s the community building for the community, so their needs are better taken care of by themselves. Besides, the community’s spirit of collaboration is remarkably outstanding. As Erik puts it, “A space like the iHub needs to be put together by someone from that community of techies who understands at a basic level the needs and has the credibility within it to make it happen.”

3. Create a quality team


The iHub’s team of highly energetic and committed people was essentially key to its success. That, coupled with its advisory board made up of 4 influential and highly credible technology players from Nairobi, including Erik, made the greater community appreciate that they were being represented well.

4. Revenue model: Experiment. Iterate. Kill


In order to sustain the iHub beyond the funding, they took a very experimental approach, iterating on what worked and killing ideas that didn’t fit, instead of as Erik puts it: “creating a grand plan.”

Image via Flickr by zulusafari

According to him, the iHub has revenue coming in from members who rent co-working desks, events and their new research arm which launched in January 2011. It is even expected that 50%+ of future income will come from the research arm of the iHub.

5. Involve Corporates, Government and Academia


Early on, iHub team started talking to big technology corporations that needed an active developer and tech community, and that the developer community also needs. But, they didn’t just want to have corporate partners who sponsored the project with finance, rather who could add value to the space and help the developer community thrive, though in a mutually beneficial way. They also nurtured strong connections with the government and academia, though did not take money from them.

Final Words


While much of the iHub’s success comes from a community that works and binds together, Erik thinks that “the success of other tech hubs across Africa will be based on leadership credibility, and ability to engage their community.”

Although there’ll always be competition, Erik believes that we will succeed if we work together and celebrate each others’ success knowing that if more of us succeed, we all benefit.

There’s no better way, folks.

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