Alles bleibt anders

By Kamal Bhattacharya
Cross-Post
  Published 12 Dec 2016
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Alles bleibt anders

Happy Independence Day to all Kenyan’s. The title means, everything changes and yet stays the same. The compactness of the German language is second to none.

We’ve left the era of Indulge-till-you-drop and entered one of a Global-Cluster-F@#$. The world has gone mad. The US has unleashed the masses and the tech community is stunned about how essential its very own deus-ex-machina has become, as if we didn’t know. And when I read the celebrations of win-with-data, I wonder if we have lost our minds. The UK has policy bombed itself back into being an island. The so-called migrant crisis is shaking up the most liberal of European countries at their core. Stability and the Middle-East cannot go in one sentence. Populism is on the rise everywhere. And we don’t have to look far. In the advent of elections, Kenya has revived its’ very own style of populism: rash decisions on policy that sound too good to be thoughtful; frequent reminders of citizens’ responsibilities in the delivery of public goods that sound too defensive to be practical.

Globally, there is a bug in the system, which has been nurtured for years and grew bigger to unmanageable proportion. Ignoring the rise of inequality for too long has consequences. And it will take decades to fix it. For us in the emerging markets, we’ve been told that all is well. The middle class has been growing and people have been lifted out of poverty, as we get frequently reminded by those who claim credit. In case you think we are immune to the era of Global-Cluster-F@#$, you may want to think again. GDP growth on the backdrop of fragile institutional infrastructures has potential to accelerate inequality at a pace that took centuries in today’s mature economies. Have we finally found our leap-frog? Maybe not the one we wanted.

I’m not the one to pontificate on global events and their importance for a local business, such as the iHub. Fixing the iHub will not fix the era of the Global-Cluster-F@#$. Yet, it is worthwhile reflecting on where we've come from and where we want to go. I strongly believe that we have to start strengthening our approach to serve the local eco-system. I also think we must be specific on what is different rather than just saying it is. The so-called African context needs substance. The iHub has never been a traditional business and will never be. So instead of merely writing to y’all about the new structure and products, which I will do towards the end of the post, let me also spend some time exposing my thought processes around why I think the way I think.

The Past

Let me share my own interpretation of the history of the iHub. The iHub in Kenya was part of a perfect storm. Around 2006 policy and action resulted in the first fiber-optic cable landing at the eastern seaboard of Africa. The launch of M-Pesa in 2007 demonstrated that simple technology can have societal impact at scale, as proven during in the tragic post-election violence events. The necessity to do something about such events, which are neither unique to Kenya nor Africa, led a group of concerned individuals to start Ushahidi, realizing over time that it would be so much more impactful if they had a space to mingle, for themselves and others enthusiastic to startup ICT companies. That idea of a space materialized as the iHub.

But the iHub has always been more than just a space. It had evolved into something akin to a social movement. One that promoted empowerment through creation. The iHub grew into a globally recognized brand, synonymous with ICT entrepreneurship and innovation in Kenya. Social movements often start with a simple and narrowly focused agenda carried out by a few individuals acting as the faces of the movement. Explorations around the fringes of the agenda led to a broader agenda.

The fate of a social movement is determined by its ability to institutionalize. This is important for a variety of reasons. Social movements are led by a few visible individuals, who are charismatic and visionary enough to attract a large following. An institution goes beyond individuals towards an organization that carries the mission, with a business infrastructure that helps managing scope creep, i.e. what is it we do and what we don’t do. Creating structures increases efficiencies. In political movements, a successful transition may imply morphing from a loosely organized group of individuals to a political party that managed to retain its core purpose, despite broadening the aperture. For us at the iHub, it means to sustain and grow as a business without losing touch with our constituency: the tech entrepreneurial community and those individuals who aspire to be part of it. In both cases, it also means to internally develop a next generation of individuals, who can carry the load for the sake of the mission and their individual growth.

Some of the criticisms that we have faced as a team is that we’ve lost our spirit or verve or compromised the movement nature of the iHub of the past. I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not; it’s pointless to worry about things too much. Worrying about too many things is a luxury of young age.

What can we learn from the past?

There is a crack in everything//that’s how the light gets in

When I was a kid, the fact that light travels at constant speed freaked me out a bit. Not by the fact that if I run away from light it will still come at me at the speed of light. That came much later. The constancy of speed made me realize that there is gap between the time something happens and me realizing it. A light quantum travels from an event source, hits the retina and gets translated into stimuli in the visual cortex, which then gets resolved in combination with millions of events into what we perceive as the present; light travels at constant speed, so there is time that has passed between when the event happened to when I realize it. The present is merely an approximation and your present is my past and vice versa. The moon and that romantic sunset of yours are 1.3 seconds and 8.31 minutes old news, respectively.

If you think that I was a lonely kid, who didn’t get to party too much, you’d be surprised to learn how many others there are, who value thoughts over dance and drinks. Chances are, if you’ve read until now, you might have been one of them.

I found consolation in physics, because physical systems follow basic principles. Once you know what those are, you can make predictions. Physics teaches you about the universality of physical laws, that once uncovered, present you with the gift of predictability. And when I learned about the marvelous implications of constant speed of light, beyond my little explorations, that my physical reality, while watching you passing by in a train might be different than yours, it didn’t weird me out, as my reality, albeit different, is as right as yours. I can calculate my physical reality and so can you. The results will be different under certain circumstances, but they are based on the same principles and different results don’t make mind better than yours, just different. If you ever had a moment, a realization, that justified a lot of choices you’ve made in the past, this is mine.

The thought of predicting stuff was pleasing in ways until I realized that the real world, which includes human beings, isn’t so predictable. As one of the greatest of my past trade, Richard Feynman, said: “Imagine how hard physics would be if electrons have feelings”. A business, for example, is a social system interacting with social systems. Those are fundamentally harder to predict and the best you can do is to uncover some basic evidence of behavior. But beware of using this evidence to predict the future too easily. Social systems adapt and know how to play the game. This explains everything from the inability to predict major economic events with certainty (vs. the trajectory of a rocket to land it on the moon) all the way to why it is so hard to address corruption. Kudos to the physicists and their principles, but a serious shout-out to the economists and social scientist trying to make sense of the mess we create.

Unearthing evidence from past behavior that will lend itself to guidelines for the future is not as easy as it sounds. See, in the world of physics, I know that your reality and mine might be different yet the basic principles of our reality are the same. It is not so in the real world, where we deal with human beings, organizations, political events, and other things.

Think about that and wonder about you devouring those 6 rules for successful startups. What makes you think that those rules work for you and what happens to you if everyone follows those rules? Will they still differentiate you? You thank heaven for Lean Startup. How do you know that the ideas, albeit meaningful at the locale they were conceived, will work in your context? Yes, the man, taught how to fish will out-eat the guy who gets the fish on a platter. But maybe in your context it would be helpful if someone gives you a solid fishing rod or better even, a couple?

Unlike in physics, where we know the basic principles that allow us to reason about outcomes in different system of references, we don’t know much about the basic principles when social systems interact with social systems. Extracting rules from looking at examples does not necessarily mean that we understand the mechanisms that make those rules work. Predicting the future of a business is hard, no matter, how good their product is. It is a social system interacting with other social systems. Creating a support system for those who try to start a business is even harder as you often don’t know where you’re going and only hope it’s comfortable wherever you’re going. Our only hope is to understand the mechanisms that explain past behavior and keep our fingers crossed for the future.

The iHub is rooted in a regional context. We must find out what works in this context. We always say that, but we never do because it is easier to buy into the God’s of little Tweets. It is the perennial hope of finding a short cut. Eventually, we will realize there are none and it is up to us to define how things will work for us. And despite my love for the abstract, abstraction is not a starting point; it’s a reflection of learning by doing.

iHub

The role of the iHub going forward is to become the best African support system for ICT focused tech entrepreneurs and individuals who aspire to create great companies that tackle some of our biggest challenges. We will create an environment of trust and experimentation. We will be focused on the idiosyncrasies of our local eco-system in Kenya at first, but will venture out across the continent and beyond. We will spend effort on elucidating our own reality and putting them into principle.

We will do this in multiple steps and phases, starting with our move to a new building, rolling out a membership program, the iHub fellowship program and launching three product lines. Let me give you a few details on each of those.

Building

We will launch the new iHub on March 7th, our 7th anniversary. As it has been publicized by our friends from Techweez, we will be moving into a new building in Hurlingham, called Senteu Plaza, at the crossing of Lenana and Gelana road. We will occupy the 5th and the 6th floor, totaling almost 22000 sqft.

In the spirit of history, Senteu is a wise choice of name as it reminds us of the detrimental effect of the inheritance feud between Senteu and his brother Lenana: it made it so much easier for the colonial powers to dispossess the Maasai from both their land and their leader. A common story across many colonialized regions, yet, today it should act not as reminder of colonialism but of the power of unity and what could have been.

I am excited about moving the iHub to this amazing place. And I hope some of you will decide to join us. Feel free to reach out.

Membership

The iHub will introduce several membership tiers, from floating work desks, to dedicated desks, to offices and corporate sponsorships. Each one will come with a price tag, which I believe will be competitive in this market and help us to offer the kind of services we feel relevant for the community. I understand that this is a significant change to our current, free for all model. I also understand that we have always been a squatting place for new arrivals in Kenya. And we will make amends to new arrivals in Kenya, who need a place to get started by offering a squatting program. We will also provide sponsorship opportunities for corporate members.

iHub Fellowship Program

We also understand that not everyone can pay our rates or for that matter any rates, yet could benefit from sitting with us and getting a first start. We will introduce an iHub Fellowship Program, which in the first year will support 20 talented individuals with ambition with a fully paid membership, and support for resources as required. We will introduce a sourcing mechanism in partnerships with other organizations. The program will be managed by the iHub and will have only one requirement for the fellows: give back for one day a week to the community.

Product Lines

The iHub will be offering three product lines.

Extension Services: At the core of our product lines is everything that matters to the community of tech entrepreneurs and those who want to become entrepreneurs or are simply looking for jobs in the tech space. In this product line, we will offer the following services:

  1. Program Facilitation: In partnership with private and public sector organizations, we will facilitate the engagement of individuals and entrepreneurs with these external programs. Many of these were previously subsumed under the m:lab banner and will now be part of iHub. The iHub Connect team will program manage and source opportunities that make sense for our community.
  2. Events: We will continue to bring events into iHub as a paid service to those who want to run events in our space. Of course, we will continue to host impromptu events for the community free of charge at our discretion, if these events are directly related to important events and policies that affect us all in Kenya.
  3. Incubation: We will continue to offer incubation services, but now under the iHub brand. These services can range from simply renting offices towards fully fledged incubation programs with support on every-day aspects such as legal support, accounting support, etc.

Internally, we will not only facilitate these offerings by thinking we know what works, but we will define and invent the way it works in our context. In collaboration with other organizations we will create a blueprint for startups in Kenya and beyond.

Innovation Journey: The private sector and the public sector are in need to understand the power of innovation. The economic situation demands deeper engagement of private and public sector alike with the entrepreneurial community. We offer our clients to engage with us on an Innovation Journey consisting of a set of the products outlined:

  1. Design Thinking: We will offer engagement workshops to help our clients to think through their problems and come up with solutions that make sense. We will engage our constituency as well as organizations outside the iHub to facilitate Design Thinking engagements to corporates and governments. This product will subsume our UX Research organization into the iHub brand.
  2. Market Research: We will create a data-centric platform to offer services for understanding the local market context. This can be as wide ranging as local market insights all the way to policy relevant aspects. This product will be based on what we had as iHub Research.
  3. Software Consultancy: We will continue to deliver software development services, but our focus will be to bring more and more development engagements into the context of larger innovation engagements. We don’t want to compete with other software development vendors, but instead embed these engagements into a broader innovation discussion.
  4. Alpha-Testing: Especially for organizations outside Kenya with an interest in this market, we are positioned well to provide alpha-testing for their services, both using our access and our software development services.
  5. Corporate Colocation: We will offer startups from other parts of the word and corporates to engage in-depth by hosting members of corporate teams to sit with us for a while, rather than or prior to setting up their own innovation centers.

Our traditional consultancy business has done a terrific job over the last two years to work on various aspects of what we have in this product line. The Innovation Journey is in fact a reverse engineered product line that will bring together many disparate services we’ve delivered in the past into one consistent offering.

Investment Instruments: Aside from our fellowship program, we are also going to develop (outside of the iHub) an Africa Innovation Fund (AIF). The AIF will be an exclusive investment partner of iHub, and will engage, support and promote the best entrepreneurs across Africa. This product will be the basis for the iHub to support in very concrete terms. The fund will initially start by seeking $10m for the Nairobi iHub pilot, but grow to $40m over time targeting other countries as well. The fund will be managed outside of the iHub, but key iHub personnel will be engaged to manage the investment pipeline. We believe that the stature and potential of the iHub is a terrific opportunity for investors to work with us and make leap-frogging real.

Final Thoughts

In know it’s been a long post and I apologize to those who despise reading beyond a tweet. But I feel the iHub deserves attention and thought. I’ve come to the iHub game late and I consider myself fortunate for this opportunity to be part of the iHub team. I am experienced enough to be able to see things dispassionately, i.e. we need a proper commercial structure and the right team. I will admit that over the last few months, my gut-feeling is giving me a sense that we are onto something. The iHub is a great brand and with all your help, we can turn this into a useful organization for us here in Kenya and over time for those in other regions as well.

My goal is not to turn the iHub into a unicorn, who are and will always be fable creatures to me. My goal is to address a need that I see. The need to step up and exercise what we must do here to the best for our people, startups and our economy. We need to explain the narrative of our reality in clear terms and invent what needs to be done. We need to get beyond the talk and becomeconfident that we have not only something to say but proveour ability to execute. Hence, I am calling for a new movement; one of clarity and actions. One that I want to be part of. Not as a figure head but as the background engine. The team and I are counting on your support.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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