In June I was invited to join twenty-seven other science and technology leaders from around the world on a five-city tour of the United State’s science and technology ecosystem. The invitation came from the United States government under their International Visitors Leadership Program. Our trip ran over a course of three weeks and took us from Washington DC to Boston, Massachusetts, to Minneapolis, Minnesota to Dallas, Texas and finally to New Orleans, Louisiana.
Although I have traveled to the United States before, it is through the IVLP program that I’ve come to truly appreciate the vastness and diversity that come together to build this country and by extension any thriving ecosystem. In a trip full of highlights, the most special thing was the opportunity to learn from, share with and teach Americans from different parts of the country.
Learning the intricacies of a self-sustaining ecosystem
A self-sustaining ecosystem thrives from unique contributions of different players who make up the ecosystem. This is an ideology that has been embraced by ecosystems across the world. Intentionally working towards realising and implementing this ideal ecosystem is a whole other ball game and ecosystems like the ones in different parts of the USA that we visited appear to be fielding the right players to make this work. Who are the right players? Anyone that holds a component of what’s needed to address local challenges.
When we begin to truly appreciate that no single person or institution can fix any of a society's key challenges, then we begin to ask for help and embrace collaboration as we break down self-imposed silos making our communities more efficient. The secret sauce here is in having the kind of leadership in place that’s able to see these opportunities and take such decisions. The kind of leaders we choose then is also critical in creating a progressive ecosystem.
Once we have the different leading institutions and right individuals in place, we’re better able to define local challenges and what it will take to fix them. Is it neighbourhood insecurity, or lack of proper urban planning? Is it joblessness? Agreeing on priority areas gives the community strategic focus and now roles can be apportioned. At this point, we are all naturally inclined to revert back to our silos but must resist! We need visionaries to focus the collective on shared value. How do all the players plug in to impact society while still scaling or increasing awareness and the use of their products and services?
When we have the right team and the priority challenges, then we answer the how. This will likely call for a mind-shift due to the multidisciplinary nature of the team and yes, resources. To bring change we’ll need to embrace new ideas and those ideas will many times call on us to take risks, and those risks will probably need to be funded. We’ll also learn to be inclusive by trusting more people and welcoming them into our circle of problem solvers.
Ultimately, we need to have a unified purpose and a productive culture.
So let’s bring this home. What does this mean for the iHub and the rest of our ecosystem? Each time our team sits down to reevaluate our strategy and to collectively cast our vision we always consult with sub-national and national government, private corporates and neighborhood associations, universities and other colleagues in other hubs as integral players to help us fulfill our mission and who, at their core, have similar values geared at positively contributing to our local economy.
At the iHub our mission is clear, we support our innovators to build solutions that meet the needs of their communities and can be scaled across Africa and the rest of the world. So our primary focus is on our society’s needs because necessity is the mother of invention. To ensure that we constantly meet that need, we rely on our community members, mostly early stage and investment-ready startups, and what they identify as gaps in the market. To have more impact we expanded our focus to engage public sector institutions and large corporates to better understand their perception of gaps in the market. This allows us to look at what they are doing to meet those needs and then ultimately look at how our individual work fits into the whole.
The major roles for government, in my view, are in opening up doors and being present and also in releasing resources. Local government should take advantage of goodwill from corporates, neighbourhood associations, corporates and spaces like the iHub which work every day for the common good. These relationships need to be nurtured and can only be based on mutual trust. Opening governments doors figuratively and literally is a huge step in getting to this point of trust. Governments also need to embrace new ideas. If current strategies to reduce river pollution, ensure street lights work, reduce incidences of crime, etc don’t work, then it’s time to change those strategies and allow other organisations with a vested interest to help them do it. The iHub, for example, would be interested in helping facilitate sessions to find innovative solutions to these issues as well as challenge and improve the innovation process within local government. We have engaged with public sector bodies such as The Presidency, the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, the Ministry of Tourism & Wildlife, the Central Bank of Kenya amongst others - we now need to turn that engagement into a true partnership.
Corporates have a vital role to play. The most valuable corporates are seen by customers as well as by the market are those who take on leadership roles in the community and we encourage others that this is a position they should embrace. Their insight, networks and experience and many times, financial resources, are vital in implementing projects and programs. They too play a role in opening up doors to opportunities and solutions and building networks of business owners who can rally communities around solutions. In the US, we saw significant investment by corporates in innovation hubs and the innovation ecosystems. Corporates in different states fund hubs, fund universities, fund state projects, fund accelerators. They do this as their way of giving back to a society that has provided an environment for their businesses to thrive or as their contribution to creating an enabling environment for their businesses and others to thrive. This again is an example of looking beyond individual needs and working for the greater good. Realising this in our local ecosystems would need buy-in from local corporates that have resources to spend on making local economies the type that they and those companies coming after them can thrive in. At the iHub, for example, we are partnering with large local corporates like Safaricom and Google, local law firms like Triple OK law and global leaders such as Oracle to deliver innovative solutions, including most recently through our iHub Women in Business programme.
Outside of visiting different government institutions, corporates and startups, we got the opportunity to sample some American culture including watching a baseball game in Boston, watching the rodeo in Dallas and jamming to jazz in New Orleans.
A sharing culture, shared attitudes, shared emotions, shared values that make us who we are.
In Kiswahili we say, dunia ni watu, the earth is people. The world is her people and we make it either good or bad. We experience the world through our interactions with other people. Coming from a culture where hospitality is considered an honour, the warmth we were received with by different people during our home hospitality visits who opened their homes and shared a meal with us was a blessing.
One of the key lessons I have learned is that despite living in a hyper-connected world we still need to actively and constantly take the time to learn more about each other. Several of my assumptions about the United States have been shattered, for example, I met and heard of world-leading innovators in cities like Cleveland, Minneapolis, Kansas, and Milwaukee that do not feature on the regular entrepreneurship circuit. Some of the questions I have had to answer have shown me there is still a lot about Africa that is misunderstood. Despite this, our motivation to explore, learn, build communities, invest, cut across everyone I met. This is one of the greatest areas of impact of IVLP, showing us that what we have in common is much more than what we do not know about each other.
An ambassador for Kenya’s thriving ecosystem. Teaching the world about Kenya and the rest of Africa.
It’s humbling to meet people from around the world who have not been to Kenya or heard about the iHub. This trip presented an opportunity to talk about innovation in Kenya; from online communities to laying of undersea cables and their impact 10 years ago, to the launch of the iHub and other innovation spaces to our payment systems, progressive last-mile connectivity, mobile penetration, to the friendly competition across African regions, to the market for investment. My brothers and sister from South Africa, Tunisia, Egypt and Namibia did a great job of teaching the world about Africa as well.
The Kenyan ecosystem has done a lot with minimal funding. I must have visited at least two hubs in the US, for example, that in one year probably attract more funding than Kenya’s 48 hubs combined in the same time period. Despite this, investment in Kenyan startups is on the rise, a testament to the work being done by startups and supporting hubs. At the iHub alone, our portfolio startups have to date raised over $40 million in investment and contributed conservatively, 40k+ jobs to the local economy. It has in fact been reported that Kenya is outperforming most lower-middle-income countries. So, we’re getting there and our story is one we are very proud of.
I am thankful that I was able to share this experience with leaders from 27 different countries. It marked the beginning of lifelong friendships and great work collaborations.