Case study: iHub
By: Irene Hau
This blog post features a review on a Kenyan innovation hub named iHub, based on the materials collected from iHub’s website and Marchant’s (2015) case study on Kenya’s ICT innovation. The review is concluded with how GESCI can learn from the strengths of iHub and improve on its weaknesses.
The genesis of iHub in Kenya was born from the eagerness for a physical innovation space for the growing community of programmers and developers, who felt disjointed in the existing innovation ecosystem. iHub’s mission is to catalyze and grow the Kenyan tech community by connecting different stakeholders, supporting startups, and surfacing valuable information to the community. iHub is now a co-working space for technologists, investors, young entrepreneurs, designers, researchers, and programmers, where companies spring up, products are funded, people get connected, and where innovation thrives.
iHub has an affiliated research center working on knowledge production, which is called iHub Research. In addition to iHub Research, iHub has a number of sustainable initiatives designed to build a Kenyan innovation ecosystem: iHub Consulting, iHub Supercomputing Cluster, and the iHub User Experience (UX) Lab. iHub itself is an incubator operating as a nonprofit organization, but these initiatives are profit-oriented, and their profits are invested back into the development of the co-working space. The partners of iHub include multinational corporations, such as, intel, Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung, and also local companies, for example, Safaricom, Ushahidi, and Zuku. iHub receives financial support from investors and multinational stakeholderes, such as Google, Omidyar Network, Hivos, and the World Bank’s InfoDev program.
Even though iHub does not provide any formal accelerator programs or direct funding for start-ups that use its space, iHub has helped the birth and growth of 50+ companies over the past 3 years. At the beginning, it attracted young computer science students, aspiring entrepreneurs, as well as prospective funders and representatives from some of the multinationals, these actors would cross paths in the halls, or at the many organized networking or training events. iHub attempts to achieve open innovation through the process of combining internal and external ideas as well as internal and external paths to market, in order to advance the development of innovation. The strength of iHub lies in facilitating these kinds of casual encounters, specifically in increasing the geographic proximity between different actors and stakeholders. Therefore, iHub has at times been described as “the unofficial headquarters of Kenya’s tech movement”.
The establishment of iHub is seen as a small turning point for the Kenyan tech innovation by multiple stakeholders in the Kenyan innovation ecosystem. The private sector and the civil society did not really work together before the birth of iHub. The ability of iHub to bring people together, to increase the geographic proximity of individual actors, can be a key component that can help increase social proximity among many different actors from very different cognitive positions.
iHub is a role model to those who want to develop sustainable innovation ecosystems. The success of iHub has inspired many African countries to open up offices using the iHub incubation model of co-working spaces. More formal incubators also opened in Kenya afterwards, including the iHub offshoot, m:lab East Africa, and Nailab. GESCI should and could learn from the strengths of iHub in accelerating actors collaborations and proximity, designing and practicing sustainable initiatives, funding methods, to build a multi-stakeholder innovation ecosystem.
In spite of iHub being a successful innovation ecosystem model, it appears to disregard the cultural aspect of investing in education, youth, and gender quality. While iHub mostly focuses on facilitating the development of innovation in a practical way, it neglects to pay attention to a key stakeholder in the ecosystem, which is the development of institutional policy-making. Therefore, GESCI can work on this to create the most suitable innovation ecosystem model for Kenya.