What Detroit can learn from entrepreneurship in Nairobi


iHub is a tech innovation and entrepreneurship incubator in Nairobi. As part of its weekly training program for members, Anna led professional writing workshops.

This is a tale of two cities. Or two tech towns, to be precise. Both Detroit and Nairobi host business incubators for technology entrepreneurs: Detroit’s TechTown and Nairobi’s iHub bring coherence and connection for start-ups in cities that aren’t (yet) widely known for high-tech innovation. While nurturing independent projects and businesses, both Tech Town and iHub are also redefining their cities.

But they’re doing it in very different ways.

I visited iHub as a guest of Ben Lyon and Dylan Higgins, co-founders of Kopo Kopo, a start-up designed to adapt businesses to the mobile money revolution. The two young and savvy Americans arrived in Nairobi just months ago. There was no question about where they would launch their business. “I was seeing what’s happening with mobile money in Kenya, and it’s the most exciting technology innovation in the last ten years,” said Dylan.

Ben gestured to the colorful, well-wired working space at *iHub, where at least fifty people were typing at their laptops. “This room, this building, is the epicenter for technology innovation in East Africa,” he said.

“Here, you get a cross-pollination of ideas you wouldn’t get otherwise,” Dylan added. “This is the crossroads for what’s going on. Anyone with any tangential connection to technology comes through here, and you can connect with them if you situate yourself here. That’s pretty powerful.”

iHub – it stands for “Innovation Hub” – is a space where primarily Kenyan technologists, programmers, investors, designers, and media-makers congregate. Less than a year old, *iHub hit a nerve. Through tiered membership (free and paid), iHub boasts 250 people who use the community workspace (and drink lattes made by an in-house barista). It has a long waiting list and a robust online community. iHub is also on the brink of opening the mLab – a laboratory for members to test mobile technology. *iHub is guided by a five-member advisory board and funded through Ushahidi, the Kenyan nonprofit that created an open-source crisis mapping software used around the world.

While iHub was built from the ground up by Nairobi entrepreneurs, Detroit’s TechTown is top-down. It was founded in 2004 and imagined as a research and technology nexus spanning twelve blocks of Detroit’s New Center neighborhood. It supports start-ups not only in technology, but also in engineering, life sciences, and alternative energy. TechTown is supported by the city’s most influential players: its first facility, TechOne, was donated by General Motors. The Henry Ford Health Health System donated office space and materials. Top staff from Wayne State University, DTE Energy, and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation are on TechTown’s board of directors, as is City Council President Charles Pugh. TechTown has about 220 tenants in its clean, professional office space, and, like *iHub, it has a long waiting list.

Both TechTown and iHub are aware of how business incubators can reshape cities, but their visions are different. TechTown emphasizes itself as a literal builder of Detroit, on its way to transforming 43 acres of New Center. It doesn’t only mean for people to work at TechTown, but also to live, learn, and play in a mixed-use neighborhood. TechTown explicitly states in its vision that it intends “to become the world’s foremost business incubator, leading to an economic renaissance in the city, state and region.” TechTown means to create jobs and businesses.

iHub, meanwhile, is renovating space in the Bishop Magua mall in Nairobi with a floor-plan designed for connectivity—both the social and tech kinds. More than make a physical impact on Nairobi, it’s interested in creating “something to be proud of; really, a psychological thing,” according to co-founder Erik Hersman. “We can stand up to anyone in the world. The Twitter and Google guys can come in and we can feel good about what we do.” Part of the incubator’s platform statement reads: “The iHub is what we as a tech community make it.” iHub means to create technologies and community.

Are one of these incubators doing it “right” and the other “wrong”? No. But the stories of TechTown and iHub reveal how, in their different strategies and visions, they reach different kinds of entrepreneurs -- despite their common focus in technology. Neither way is the only way. Or, to put it in business-speak, there is a market for more than one kind of business incubator in each of these developing cities.

This article was published in the May 17, 2011 edition of The Detroit Free Press. Reprinted with permission.