The 'White African' and Nairobi's Tech Hub Erik Hersman, son of American missionaries, talks about developing an ecosystem for entrepreneurs in Kenya's flourishing tech community.
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Erik Hersman is fresh off of a trip to Lagos, Nigeria. He was there for Maker Faire Africa, a broad gathering of innovators and inventors and one of many events he helps organize as part of his role as instigator, ambassador, and advocate of all things technology and Africa.
Hersman, whose online moniker is the White African, is an American who grew up in East Africa with missionary parents. He now makes his home in Nairobi, where he founded AfriGadget, named in 2008 as one of Time Magazine's best websites of the year. He's also behind Ushahidi, a non-profit technology company whose marquee product, a mobile mapping application, was critical in reporting violence and corruption in Kenya's most recent election cycles.
But these days, Hersman is perhaps most focused on his two-year-old startup, iHub, the thrumming nerve center of Kenya's flourishing tech community. A business incubator with the requisite foosball table, iHub spawned 48 companies by the end of 2011, and is now currently hosting seven. iHub also serves as a research center and gathering place for entrepreneurs in Nairobi, with some 9,000 members. The goal, says Hersman, a senior TED and PopTech fellow, is to build a technology and entrepreneurship ecosystem that other African countries can model.
Edited interview excerpts follow.
Entrepreneur: Why did you start iHub?
Hersman: To create a center for the tech community in Kenya. It doesn't matter if you're a CEO or a guy in university with an idea or an investor. Here is where you can meet up with like-minded people. We don't have to parachute in engineers from other countries whenever we do something new. We're filling those gaps and figuring out how to monetize Africa.
Entrepreneur: How does iHub reshape the tech community not just in Kenya, but Africa?
Hersman: The World Bank came to us and asked [if] we wanted to do an iHub in every country in Africa. I don't think that's a good idea. Champions within each country that know the cities need to build their communities. But we recognize that we work well, and that people can get funding by modeling themselves after us. So we told the World Bank no, but anybody who wants to build a community can come here and we'll help them with their planning. A center in Zambia recently opened up after spending time with us here. And that's what works. For us it's not about solving this problem for Africa, but finding a model that others can use.
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Entrepreneur: How does an entrepreneur get you enthusiastic about their idea?
Hersman: I'll respond to almost every email. But if you send a book-long email … no. What works better for me is if you have demo set up that I can play with immediately. Tell me the numbers right off the bat. Are you funded? How many users do you have? How do you expect to make money? People sometimes get in touch with me too early, before they have something to show. Ideas are great and I like ideas to but I'm much more interested in a viable product.
Entrepreneur: What inspires you?
Hersman: For me, the wellspring of ideas comes from being bored. So I need solitude. It doesn't matter where – it can be up in Ngong Hills or just in the backyard. I have to force myself not to touch a device or read a book. I founded AfriGadget one weekend when my wife and kids were out of town and I wanted to play with a new piece of Wordpress software. Solitude for me is really important.
Entrepreneur: Are you competitive?
Hersman: Hugely competitive – I grew up playing a lot of sports, like rugby and basketball, and I love playing board games and computer games. I think competitiveness is really important, though it manifests itself differently in different people. Some people are connoisseurs. I like winning.
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Entrepreneur: How does your competitive streak mesh with the community you've worked so hard to build?
Hersman: It's a very western construct that you're assuming, that if one wins than others fail. The African construct is very community focused. The rising tide floats all boats. So yes, we have competitive companies within the same space. They might have to carve out different areas in the market, but there's room for both of them to win. Part of what we're building here at iHub is taking the very real understanding of community from an African point of view and leveraging that in the tech space.
What's it like in the U.S. tech community?
Hersman: In the Bay Area you have a "pay it forward" mentality. You don't think too much about your current state of affairs or your competitors because in the end you'll still be individuals in the Valley and working with each other, more likely than not. So that's the other place where I see more sharing and openness. But there's definitely cutthroat business everywhere, including Kenya.