Visiting Nairobi’s most innovative tech hub and digital agency

Digital team on roof of Nendo office in Nairobi. Photo by June Ondeng.

My colleagues and I on the roof of the Nendo office in Nairobi. Photo by June Ondeng.

“As a tech scene, no one can rival us. South Africa is doing a good job though.”

Benson Mutahi said this to me with a mocking smile, trying to spark a national rivalry. It was March and we were at the iHub – an innovation hub and hacker space for the technology community in Nairobi. With me were three colleagues, as well as five digital marketing interns we brought together from Zimbabwe, Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia and Mauritius to do user research.

Benson gave us a presentation and tour of iHub, explaining why he sees iHub as the best out of the 442 tech hubs on the African continent.

“We’re the only hub in Africa that sustains its own programmes. More than 200 startups can trace their roots to the iHub”

Benson Mutahi at iHub in Nairobi

Benson Mutahi at iHub in Nairobi

To illustrate this point, he brought up a range of logos on the screen. These were the successful startups that began at iHub. One is Sky.Garden, an online marketplace that has received $1.2 million in funding. Their unique selling point is that they deliver in three hours – a daring promise in the second most traffic-congested city in the world! Another example is Eneza, an education startup with 4 million registered learners. Even on a basic Kabambe phone a user can interact with a virtual tutor through USSD messaging.

The owners of Pace headphones at the iHub in Nairobi

The owners of Pace headphones at the iHub in Nairobi

Walking past the rooms and cubicles at iHub, the energetic co-owner of Pace headphones grabbed us to ask a question. Larry was at that very moment redesigning his website and wanted to know from us what colour to make the two buttons on the home page. With UX pros in our team, we debated whether to base the decision on what’s standard for call-to-action button colours, what would contrast with the background image, or whether to stick to the brand colours. I even got to connect my phone via Bluetooth to the Pace headphones and test them out. They sounded good, and I felt honoured to try out the same headphones that President Uhuru tested weeks before!

Later that day we visited Nendo, a digital agency in Nairobi who say they “apply insights from the continent’s 453 million internet users to deliver business results.” On the roof of their office, digital analyst Anthony Ndung’u, described how he built a text classifier to determine the ratio of negativity to positivity of a message from customers. “Western classifiers were giving us problems”, he said, explaining the need to localise classifiers in order to interpret Kenyan dialects. He told us his first experience in this field was as a Data Lab intern at iHub, where he used code to identify hate speech on Twitter.

Anthony Ndung'u at Nendo in Nairobi

Anthony Ndung’u at Nendo in Nairobi

We then went downstairs to a meeting with Nendo’s founder, Mark Kaigwa. He enlightened us with his extensive knowledge of mobile user behaviour in Africa. Facebook Live has seen a slow uptake, because of the associated mobile data cost of video. He joked about receiving videos in WhatsApp Groups:
“Once you see how big the file is of the video your uncle says is a ‘must watch’, you are not gonna watch it!”. Mark made a point to distinguish between four ways that people can experience Facebook:

  • Free Basics – a service that allows free access to a set of basic websites
  • Facebook Zero – a text-only version of the mobile site that omits photos
  • Facebook Lite – a small app, for 2G conditions
  • Facebook – the full version

So if you’re a content producer or digital marketer, you can’t assume that what you create will be seen in the intended format by your target audience. What may be a prominent call-to-action button on the full version of Facebook may only display as one of numerous basic hyperlinks on Facebook Zero.

Mark also spoke about how limited mobile data affects people’s browsing behaviour. He described a trend he’s observed in Nairobi of people who know they’ll be sitting in traffic for hours, quickly scrolling through many Instagram photos while they’re still connected to WiFi, and then getting into the matatu taxi and comfortably reading through preloaded photos.

His last word of advice was a prediction that the new Android Go, a stripped-down version of Android designed to run on entry-level smartphones, will be game changer for Africa. He anticipates that any business that wants to succeed in African markets will need to ensure their app is compatible with Android Go.

Visiting iHub and Nendo that day was eye-opening. It demonstrated to me the importance of understanding the user behaviours of your target market and not assuming a one-size-fits-all solution will work whether you’re in San Francisco, Johannesburg, London or Nairobi.

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