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Redesigning tech ecosystems around people


PHOTO: Disrupt Africa

“Sabo to Anthony on foot is about 1.5 hours.” A young Nigerian software developer named Obi discovered this while trying to build his payment startup in Lagos. Obi wasn’t walking from Sabo to Anthony because he loved to exercise and keep fit, he found out the hard way when he was broke and couldn’t afford the transport fare to go home from the co-working space where he ran his startup. His struggle is not unique, it is unsurprisingly commonplace, but he was brave enough to say it openly and got employment with another “funded” payment startup. Ikoyi to Surulere also takes the same amount of time if you go through Carter Bridge. I found that out myself.

I was in Nairobi for a week last month for Google’s Launchpad Africa, and I noticed a lot had changed in 15 months. There was a lot more real estate construction which indicated that the economy was growing. Startup fortunes had improved considerably, Exits were now commonplace, and founders are now beginning to make some serious money. All the work to build and rebuild that ecosystem is finally paying off.

I was particularly intrigued by the change in focus of iHUB (the first innovation space in Kenya) from its predominantly co-working arrangement for early-stage ventures, to one that was more focused on growth-stage companies and events. iHUB moved up the food chain, and others are now taking up its old role.

The Nairobi tech scene is rapidly evolving and becoming a dominant regional force, a lot of new communities are springing up in Nairobi to cater to different areas of the ecosystem. Tosh Juma, the former community manager at iHUB, started the Nairobi Design Institute to provide design skills to the broader ecosystem.


The only thing that had not changed about Nairobi, however, was that there were still a lot of poor people walking around in the streets.  Some of those poor people were also likely to be technology startup founders like the former Obi and me.

Lessons from the Nairobi Design Institute
One memorable experience from Nairobi was chatting with Caine Wanjau the CTO of Twiga Foods. He was telling me the work my good friends at the Nairobi Design Institute were doing to help startups like theirs in the community. Twiga is a startup fixing problems in the Kenyan agricultural value chain using technology-enabled logistics and supply chain management.

Caine explained how they had a problem with bananas getting destroyed while in transit and the designers from the institute decided to help find out why? The designers simulated the ride of the bananas in the trucks by curling up themselves and riding with the bananas. After the long trip from the farm to Twiga’s processing centre, they had discovered that they were feeling bruised and sore. The designers’ simulation and empathy with bananas made the company decide to change shipping processes, saving them a lot of money.

I started to ask myself if the Nairobi Design Institute could do something similar to the Banana experiment for African ecosystems to help diagnose issues? Could one of the designers trek from Sabo to Anthony to see what it feels like exactly? Can they simulate similarly extreme conditions all around Africa in which some founders operate to come up with a solution? We rarely ask about the personal circumstances of founders or how teams are formed. We only assume they exist.

Nobody likes poverty; I believe the main problem holding Africa back from the explosive growth in technology is poverty. People cannot be expected to be very creative if they don’t know when their next meal is going to come or how they will get home. I don’t believe that desperation is the best catalyst for innovation. I have seen far too many examples where people excel when they have all the essential comforts and security.

If you ask a typical Sub Saharan Africa early-stage founder what their most significant problem is? They would tell you that it is funding. If you ask them what exactly they want to use the money for if they get it? It is mostly to improve their circumstance directly or indirectly. Most of the money would be spent on trying to survive first.

There is no crime in primarily thinking of your survival; dead men don’t innovate. The more significant problem is that we are becoming accomplices in enabling a culture where people no longer think or care genuinely about solutions but say the “right things” to be able to get some money. Can this change if they have other guaranteed sources of income? I believe it will. I saw it happen in Kenya with mLabs. Founders made extra money from remote software testing.

While encouraging innovation experiments through rapid iteration, I believe economic safety nets are the first thing we should provide. Early-stage African founders don’t need institutional investors; they need support from friends, family and “fools” or just some basic income to survive. The governments of Tunisia and Poland are playing the noble role of the “fool” by providing guaranteed income for tech founders though enacted laws. I think they should become African standards. We should learn to take care of people first before funding ventures.

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