Njeri Chelimo’s “Nairobi Dev School” – An Exemplary Beacon for Kenya’s innovation ecosystem
The story of Njeri Chelimo is a compelling one, and a shining example of the proverb “when there is a will, there is a way”. 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 relevant people. Unfortunately her visa was refused. She could have given up but her response was quite the opposite: “I decided I would start my own hack school here, in Nairobi“.
When I met Njeri, her students were busy finishing their group projects with the deadline just 4 weeks away. This exercise was a way to turn theoretical lessons into practical use, allowing the students to apply all that the mentors and teachers had taught them over the previous 2 months.
To build a capable faculty, Njeri turned to her network and Twitter, where she grabbed every opportunity to invite guest speakers to her school. Thanks to her persistence, her students had the opportunity to meet coders, creatives and entrepreneurs from all over the world, including San Francisco and Australia.
The school is free for students but Njeri incurs the costs of running it, including rental of two rooms in a shared residence near iHub, the main tech workspace in 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 forms the main chunk of her costs and to fund everything, Njeri turned to the larger community on social media. Her $15000 crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo will pay for roughly a year of the project, after which she will have to find another source of revenue.
The value proposition of the school is not just coding skills. After all, tutorials for that very purpose are widely available online. Instead, Njeri wants to work “around the code” on the business, management, marketing and consumer needs, so that the students focus their efforts on tech that serves the needs of Kenya right now. 2 of the student projects are on the travel industry, a key asset of the country, where ICT can definitely improve the experience – and the conversion – of visitors.
Where does the Nairobi Dev School fit into 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. Developers need to write, to identify problems, to have this impact”.
Kenya’s growing innovation ecosystem: Pitfalls and Solutions
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 that has been in operation for more than 20 years. Martin Obuya is a polyvalent individual 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 actors and keen observers of the tech scene in Kenya and Africa as a whole, 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 have been neglected, such as the digitization of culture, one of Africa’s assets, or solutions to the jams of Africa’s cities.
Rather than just focusing on breeding startups in community workspaces, which is a common strategy in many 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 entrepreneurs; basically to “Startupify” the old business. To do so, Afritel runs incubation programs and skill assessments to more efficiently utilise the many skills of their youth. “For kids, right now, it’s all about apps, but maybe they have a profile that can fit better elsewhere”, says Eustace.
Building 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) investments must be learnt. Many experienced players in the ecosystem understand it: turning a generation of successful entrepreneurs into mentors for the 2nd generation is key to ensuring 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 as the main motive, 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 time frame to build resilience and avoid being squeezed by short-term financial stints.