It’s midnight in Nairobi and the fireworks are burning the sky, crackling through the croton and bottlebrush trees we peer through from the Beeclan Guesthouse. Dogs across the city are crazed, making their own howling celebration. I arrived just 12 hours ago, and it’s already clear that this is a NEW YEAR for Nairobi, for innovators of all kinds in small businesses (low to high tech), and for Young Inventors worldwide, but in East Africa, especially.
Kenya, like the Nairobi skies tonight, sparkles with innovation. One example of that is Kenyan superstar Ory Okolloh, who started Ushahidi (Swahili for testimony), an open source online tool for tracking and stopping violence after the 2007 Kenyan election. The n she started a site to track corrupt Kenyan officials. Last week’s big news for nerds (as she calls herself in this TED talk) is that she just became Policy Manager for Google Africa. See here to read about Ory!
The lovely Beeclan Guest House sits on beautiful grounds with 30 species of trees, bougainvillea and palm trees and is one of several family operations run by John and Jessica Mbaya, the lively parents of three sons who each have businesses — commercial photography, cybercafe and capital investment — the latter started by middle son Martin, who cut his teeth at MIT and Harvard with courses in African innovation. He started Nairobi Capital only a year ago, with the help of his team and Michael Gordon, director of AiTi at MIT. It’s now ten times its starting size, growing through word of mouth and now looking for new investors to quadruple. MIT students like Martin go on to teach the next generation of innovators in four countries.
Now African Information Technology Initiatives teaches young Africans how to program apps on phones and start new businesses — since Nairobi may be the epicenter of Africa’s cell phone future. Half the population of Africa owns cells phones, from the Jitterbug phone for grandmas with simple needs for mobile credit to pay bills (many mistrust credit cards here) and a $10 pricetag, to blackberries and androids. AiTi gets support for its innovative teaching program from Google and Nokia.
Next time I will tell you what I’ve heard about Juakili (hot+sun in Swahili) inventors, who are unauthorized car repairmen and crafts people who make things all sorts of things to sell along the road, from furniture to gadgets, some made out of old cars and scrap metal, most of the makers live in Kibera, the second largest slum in the world, another place that sparks creative innovation. Stay tuned.