The iHub is one of Kenya’s most popular innovation hubs and is viewed by many as one of the successes of Kenya’s thriving technology ecosystem. A while back, iHub announced it was looking to go fully commercial after attracting investors who included among others Professor Bitange Ndemo. iHub would then begin re-organisation efforts with the aim of becoming 100% self-funded. There was also talk of the iHub relocating from the iconic Bishop Magua building on Ngong Road to a different location altogether.
The next step after the announcement was the recruitment of a CEO to lead these efforts. In August iHub announced that research scientist Dr. Kamal Bhattacharya was set to join the company as interim CEO. Dr. Kamal Bhattacharya previously worked at IBM for 17 years in various capacities with his last role as VP IBM Research Africa before taking a break in July 2016. We had a sit down with Kamal where we talked about the transformation, his plans for iHub and technology in Kenya.
“iHub started as a social movement and made the country, region and world realize how to run a tech hub and how important these spaces are important for development of technology. The tech landscape in Kenya would have been totally different were it not for the iHub,” said Kamal on the Transformation. “I have been viewing iHub from the other side of town and now looking at it from the inside, I am amazed at the goodwill to have this space succeed,” he adds.
“…times have changed …. the needs of the community have changed…”
Kamal says that iHub has since its inception achieved major milestones and has grown from just a social movement but one that is making significant contribution. “Times have changed, the community has grown and the needs of the community have changed. There is a certain level of maturity in the space and what it does. We are seeing capital inflows and more of things happening on the business side,” he added.
Kamal says that the little time he has spent at the iHub has been a fulfilling learning experience for him. “I have had to learn a lot of things because on the stuff that goes on in the entrepreneurial space. Things such as how to provide technical assistance to entrepreneurs and others. Most of this stuff is different in the corporate world from how it is on the startup side of things.” he said.
“I have been talking to people from entrepreneurs to investors and even some of the staff here. People who actually know more than I do, as I did not come him to say this is what we are doing henceforth,” he says of his experiences. “There are things I know such as how to structure a business, how to create the best model for a product, how to foster a transformation and this is expertise I hope to bring in and create a positive experience,” he says.
With a transformation set to take place and a leadership keen to learn and drive a specific agenda, what is the role of iHub in the new order? “My goal is to simplify what we do, by focusing on who we are talking to, what the expectations are and what we want to do in the future,” he says. Kamal says his key areas of emphasis will focus on three core areas of technical assistance, innovation journey and investment.
On technical assistance, the iHub will seek to harness its convening power to continually support entrepreneurs within Kenya’s tech ecosystem. “A huge number of people benefit from iHub’s convening power. We have the ability to bring people who want to invest or even look for partners together, which is something we have been doing for sometime and have done it well,” he added. The focus on technical assistance will going forward focus on early stage startups. Why is this is a gap? “The focus of government is not always in early stage companies especially with policies. For your voice to be heard, your revenues have to be at $1 Million upwards, employ 30 people and the like. Our constituency is the high risk and early stage guys and we want to major on this particular aspect even more,” he added.
“…innovation is not something you can buy. It is expensive and you need the right people and environment to achieve this”
Innovation journey will be the second area of emphasis for the iHub going forward. “One of the things I noticed is that when I talk to institutions, commercial and the like, they all want to innovate,” he says “They however forget innovation is not something you can buy. It is expensive and you need the right people and environment to achieve this.” Kamal says that most local corporates are grappling with issues such as how to offer relevant offerings to their customers and he believes iHub has the knowledge and capacity to achieve this in three key ways.
“First, we can help with design thinking, by helping those interested in innovation think through what they want to achieve. Second, we can help organizations develop a product for the market as we have a lot of tacit knowledge on things that can or cannot work in the market,” he says. The third aspect of the innovation journey will focus on data. “We have a tremendous amount of data, we know the market and we could help companies figure if what they want to do is scalable.”
“A company can for instance send its team to work with iHub and create a concrete solution for their business,” he added. Kamal says the goal for them in pursuing this agenda will be providing additional services to the contractors and entrepreneurs sitting at the iHub with projects where they can offer their skills. “Most of the guys sitting at the iHub are contractors with ambitions to become entrepreneurs. We sometimes hire some but if we can provide constant work to the rest, that would be a great achievement on our part,” he added.
These two aspects will then feed into each other allowing the iHub to continually remain sustainable. “A practical example was agriculture in the United States in the 1930s, which succeeded thanks to extension services. Organizations in the space begun providing crucial research and development services to farmers, and as their activities picked up, they were able to tap into this for success,” he says. “The iHub wants to provide such services to entrepreneurs by letting them see the innovation journey from the lenses of technical assistance.”
Critical to the success of any transformation of an organization are three questions. Where do you want to play; how do you want to win; and what do you want to retain. How is the iHub positioning itself in this regard? “An organization moving to 2.0 does not mean 1.0 was terrible. The iHub achieved a lot with 1.0 and we look forward to more of this going forward,” he says. “We have identified where we want to play and have come up with clearly defined products with that regard. We know how we want to win, and this has seen us come up with properly priced offerings that ensure we can remain sustainable and help our staff grow,” he says. On what they want retain, Kamal says, “We want to have that feel of a movement, while ensuring we are running a successful and growing business. The community nature is at the core of iHub and our one area of focus will be on being inclusive.”
Kamal says the iHub wants to reach out to individuals across different segments and as such will start the iHub fellowship program which will sponsor 20 graduate students from a humble background. “We are working with a few sponsors for the fellowship and we shall bear their cost of membership, offer resources such as laptops and induct them into what we do. This is part of iHub’s outreach and we hope it will have a positive effect all through,” he says.
“going forward I see a lot of activity … where enterprises will make use of startups through acquisition with the view of bringing new products…”
On the local tech scene in Kenya for which iHub has played an important role, Kamal says not may startups transition into enterprises. “Not many startups here make it to become enterprises. It may be the founder mentality or the need and feel to exit early,” he says. Kamal says exits are not bad. “Going forward, I see a lot of activity probably taking place, where enterprises will make use of startups through acquisition with the view of bringing new products.” However, he notes startups should be keen to pivot. “People here are afraid of sharing and trusting each other wide ideas and this means one cannot receive adequate advice on the way forward.” Kamal says iHub is not keen on stealing people’s ideas.
“We want to create a community of trust and we are aware the business world is ruthless and people are out to get you but we are here to help businesses. We only gain when companies and individuals get successful and that is the whole essence of iHub’s community. Not everyone out there is like us,” added. At the same time, Kamal feels there needs to be a higher bar to innovation. “I feel we can do a lot with innovation journey in this segment by increasing the chances for corporate organizations to tap into innovations while giving startups the chance to grow and scale. The entrepreneurial space does not have the platform to achieve this connection and that is iHub’s part in fostering it,” he says. “If someone has a great idea, they have a chance not to waste time but to go straight ahead and start working on it. We have a role in helping entrepreneurs grow.”
Going forward Kamal hopes to maintain the same sense of community that is vibrant and fosters innovation and entrepreneurship.