Nairobi - Africa's innovation hub?
Posted by
Paul Drawbridge at 13:00

In my 18 months now in Kenya, I've slowly adjusted to life in Nairobi, having left my beloved London behind. One of the signs of this happening is that I've been unsubscribing from various email updates - you know the kind: restaurant offers, museum and exhibition releases, etc. One I have yet to remove, for fear of acknowledging I am no longer a Londoner, is the TFL (Transport for London) travel update, issued by the London Mayor's office. 

These emails are, more often than not, completely irrelevant to me now - telling weary London commuters, for example, that 100-year overdue engineering work will put the entire Northern Line out of action this bank holiday weekend. However, I was drawn to one email in particular from a few weeks back. In it, I noted with interest TFL's decision to make all London bus journeys cashless. London is finally removing hard cash as a payment system, which means you better not forget your Oyster card, especially for that drunken night bus home from Piccadilly at 3am!

Back to East Africa and Kenya, in particular, where there is something even more exciting going on.  Kenya's matatu & bus system is also in the process of going cashless. The move will use a similar technology to Oyster, but instead of top-ups on machines at stations (which prop up the London scheme) M-Pesa and mobile money will be the power behind this system.  The name of this new matatu payment scheme is BebaPay, and it is owned by Google.

Someone far cleverer than me once said: "they always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself" (Andy Warhol, if you're interested). In case you've been living on the moon these last few years, M-Pesa is Safaricom's mobile payment system, which is completely transforming Kenya and how we pay for things. Since arriving in Nairobi, I've been impressed by the culture of innovation here. M-Pesa is just one example of this in practice, BebaPay another. One third of Kenya's GDP is now transacted through M-Pesa. Seriously!? Think about that for a second. That's immense.

To increase Internet usage Safaricom recently launched Vuma Online, a free wifi service for passengers in selected matatus. And OK, that might not seem too revolutionary, but I can't remember the last time I had free wifi on a London bus.

Nairobi's iHub - a tech-community supported by the likes of Google, Microsoft, et al - is the biggest tech start-up hub in Africa. It is a growing community of entrepreneurs and start-up folk; so far the membership has exceeded 10,000 and continues to grow. FastCompany ranked iHub, Sanergy & One Acre Fund as the top 3 innovative companies in Africa. All three are based in Nairobi.

Another example is OkHi, which recently won the Seedstars startup competition here. OkHi is a company that is helping address the world… literally. It's a way to allocate addressing in developing countries where there isn't an existing or accurate street address. Now that's pretty cool.


And investors are getting curious about it all - international investors that is. They are watching from the sidelines with a keen and developing interest. There is also a lot of money being pumped into start-ups from USAID & DFID, who are starting to invest more in schemes like this than directly into NGO projects.

Last year we wrote a white paper on transformative innovation. In it there was a lovely case study on BOXCLEVER, who refit shipping containers and convert them into housing, schools and healthcare spaces. I've seen these spaces all over East Africa. It isn't rocket science, yet it has had a truly transformative effect.

Africa's lack of infrastructure has long been cited as a barrier to its development. I couldn't disagree more. We have M-Pesa and the success story that is mobile payments because the traditional banking infrastructure didn't exist. For me, this lack of infrastructure is an opportunity, not a barrier. It is an opportunity for the many smart, hard-working entrepreneurs operating in Kenya to come up with new and better ways of doing things.

If you want to know what 'breakthrough innovation' looks like, aside from being one of the latest marketing buzz words, come and check out Nairobi. You'll be amazed at what you find here.

Download Yellowwood's white paper: Transformative Innovation: An African Path to Success

Further reading:

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