by Kui Kinyanjui as appeared in the Business Daily on Friday 12th March 2010
It’s Wednesday evening last week in Nairobi.
Against the backdrop of a beautiful sunset, the tinkling and chinking of glasses and laughter mingle with the sound of mouses clicking and laptops powering up at an office on Ngong Road.
Gathered in a small room (standing space only), are members of a tech glitterati; ranging from captains of industry and parastatal CEOs to young and energetic university students.
It’s the official launch of iHub, a new initiative that aims to support the local tech community to inject creativity and innovation through mentorship and entrepreneurship.
“iHub is the first of its kind in Kenya. It provides a physical nexus point for the tech community to meet, interact and create new products and services in the web and mobile space in Nairobi,” said Jessica Colaco, iHub’s manager. For the uninitiated, the concept might seem far-fetched: a dedicated resource centre for techies?
Mooted a few months ago, iHub is the first physical sign of the shifts taking place on the country’s technology scene.
Industry players are billing the development of iHub — contraction for Innovation Hub — as the strongest attempt yet at tapping into IT skills for the growth of the sector identified as a key driver of the economy.
Last year, it emerged that the country made more income from content exports — think of university kids developing applications for IT big shots like Apple, Disney or even Microsoft — than it did from other segments in the industry.
Analysts reckon with content development raking in an estimated Sh800 million in 2009, the sector is silently taking the glitz away from Kenya’s other hot technology spot: business process outsourcing (BPO).
The outsourcing opportunity informed the government’s decision to tag BPOs as a key component of its economic pillar in its economic blueprint Vision 2030.
But critics have faulted the policy minds, saying BPO was only a subset of the ubiquitous ICT, which would have been the key pillar.
Perhaps learning fast, the Information Ministry now says it is widening its definition under the Vision 2030 manifesto to include other ICT services such as software development and animation.
A number of factors explain Kenya’s rising profile as a content development haven in the region.
Analysts say that the arrival of fibre optic connectivity last year allowed the growing local content community to gain more access to vital international contacts.
Improved Internet connectivity means shorter delivery times for projects, faster identification of opportunities, and quicker collaboration or networking.
Another factor that has driven the growing field is the emergence of a younger, more tech-savvy workforce.
Research shows that one substantial obstacle to attaining a critical mass of broadband users is the lack of compelling applications and content at a local level.
iHub hopes to cash in on these factors said to have positioned Kenya as a competitive IT hub.
“It’s an open space for the technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in the area. This space is a tech community facility with a focus on young entrepreneurs, web and mobile phone programmers and designers. It is part open community workspace (co-working), part vector for investors and venture funds and part incubator,” said Ms Colaco.
Over the last two years, the content development industry has become one of the most vibrant industries in the country, where Kenyan developers forge links and cement deals with international partners.
A recent example is the Homeboyz collaboration with British company Tiger Aspect on a multi-million dollar animation project.
A set of 52 eleven minute episodes were animated in Kenya for the show known as Tinga Tinga Tales, a new animated preschool series.
Developers said Tinga Tinga Tales would feature animal stories that have been passed down through generations all over Africa.
Led by a young, cheeky monkey, the cast and their world are brought to life with a mix of distinctively African colour, pattern and music.
The style is based on the famous Tinga Tinga art of Tanzania and all images are being hand-painted by local African artists and imported into computers for animation.
Working with Homeboyz in Nairobi, Tiger Aspect set up a fully equipped animation studio in Kenya, working with local designers, writers, musicians and animators.
Once production on the first season wraps, the studio will continue to support a new animation industry in East Africa, encouraging the creation of original content that will work in the international arena.
“This is one of the most ambitious projects we’ve ever taken on,” said Andrew Zein, Tiger Aspect managing director.
After two years of design and production at Homeboyz studios, Tinga Tinga finally went on air in late January, having been sold to BBC and Disney.
iHub seeks to increase the number of synergies between local developers and international firms.
“Some of the biggest challenges for developers is getting access to financial backing, equipment. There is also a large disconnect between the industry and our education systems and a lack of adequate mentorship in the industry,” said Conrad Akunga of iHub.
iHub represents growing conscience of the appeal of the content industry.
In recent weeks, several events attempting to inform Kenyan companies on how they can tap into the growth market that has seen international firms like Google, Microsoft and Cisco benefit were held, highlighting the increased interest in the field.
Last week, top executives of Safaricom and content providers such as Adtel, IMS, Cellulant and Symbiotic met to discuss how the mobile firm could leverage on content.
On Monday this week, the Kenya ICT Board announced a Sh2.4 million partnership with Google to raise awareness on the relevance of Internet in everyday life and encourage development of more local digital content.
“Through this partnership, we can educate Kenyans on the opportunities the Internet offers and that in the end we will see Kenya producing more local content and competing at a global level,” said Joseph Mucheru, regional lead for Sub-Saharan Africa at Google.
The Kenya ICT Board will bring together local content developers and IT professionals to explore the subject of content through bi-monthly events dubbed the Tandaa Symposium on Local Digital Content.
The symposiums, sponsored by Google, will bring together experts, entrepreneurs, business executives and civil society to explore how to produce more local content for consumption via mobile phones, digital TV and the Internet.
The events will train business owners, innovators and community groups and show them how to adopt digital technologies.
“We aim to look into how communities can use emerging technologies to enable community voice, preserve our culture and bring together all the content that supports them in making informed and wise choice,” said Paul Kukubo, CEO of the Kenya ICT Board.
This morning, the University of Nairobi will host another event dubbed the 1% EVENT, which will “bring together innovators, young professionals, entrepreneurs and change-makers to invest their time, expertise, experience, talent, network and energy to work on new innovative approaches to international co-operation”.
The opening of iHub is anticipated to be the catalyst developers need to create solutions. “Kenyan developers face challenges such lack of advice on suitable business models for their products and services, lack of business skills to pitch their ideas and intellectual property rights,” said Ms Colaco.