The neighborhood of Kilimani in Nairobi, Kenya, is full of contrasts. It’s predominantly residential, dotted with art studios and trendy restaurants; many sidewalks are unpaved; and few intersections have stoplights. Yet it’s just 15 minutes from downtown, with a bumper crop of newly sprouted commercial skyscrapers generating heavy traffic.
And it’s the heart of the local technology community—if by “local” you mean all of Kenya.
With more than 3.1 million residents, Nairobi is one of the largest and most highly developed cities in East Africa. A business and cultural hub with easy access to the growing markets of neighboring Ethiopia and Tanzania, it boasts a thriving community of Kenyans who leave to pursue university degrees abroad and then come home to launch their businesses. In the local Maasai language, Enkare Nairobi, the name of the river that runs through the city, means “cool water.” And in Kilimani, entrepreneurs are creating a steady flow of digital business ideas.
AngelList, the influential Silicon Valley startup investing platform that links companies with funders, counts nearly 300 tech startups in Nairobi. A number of them got their start on Ngong Road, along the west edge of Kilimani, in iHub, a community space for entrepreneurs to meet, form teams, and develop their ideas. When iHub moved into its current offices five years ago, it was one of two tech companies in the building, says Evans Campbell, the organization’s head of PR and communications. Today, it’s one of 16.
Though it’s hard to gauge the actual size of the local startup ecosystem, Campbell says iHub alone has nearly 16,500 members, 95 of whom are running their companies out of the space. And it drew nearly 3,000 entrepreneurs, IT students, investors, and representatives of tech companies to its five-year anniversary party. Private business incubator m:lab East Africa and accelerator Nailab are based nearby. So is Africa’s first co-working space, Nairobi Garage. The Kenyan government recently invested US$1.6 million in its own tech incubator program. Large global companies are noticing: Barclays recently hosted a hackathon for financial technology, and a Google DevFest in late 2015 attracted more than 350 developers.
What sets Kilimani’s startups apart is their focus on turning characteristic problems of emerging economies into sustainable business opportunities. One typical example is Twiga Foods, 2015 winner of the $150,000 Challenge Cup from global incubator and seed fund 1776. Twiga plans to revolutionize food distribution across the continent with a mobile-based, cashless supply platform for vendors.
“The neighborhood is buzzing with activity,” Campbell says. “The competition is crazy, but if you succeed here, it’s easier to scale into other markets in the Eastern African region, like Tanzania and Uganda.”
Kilimani’s most notable success story to date is BRCK, which makes a rugged, battery-operated, solar-chargeable mobile Wi-Fi device. About the size of a brick (hence its name) and weighing just over a pound, the BRCK is designed to provide connectivity in places with little or no wired power and Internet infrastructure. The company was founded in May 2013 by the same entrepreneurs who helped launch iHub. It funded its first prototype through a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $172,000 and began shipping in December 2014. Though the company hasn’t disclosed sales figures yet, it reports sales in the thousands to customers in more than 45 countries, not just in Africa, but all around the globe.
The Kenyan government is currently building a tech-centric, planned community called Konza techno city, almost 40 miles from Nairobi. It’s a well-meant effort to give the country’s entrepreneurs dedicated space on the Silicon Savannah, but local entrepreneurs say they’d rather stay in Kilimani. It’s where the action already is—and where they’re already catching the eye of the world.
Where to eat: Some of Nairobi’s most popular restaurants are in Kilimani:
O’Sinkirri High-end Continental cuisine
Osteria Del Chianti Lenana Italian seafood
Sierra Brasserie Traditional French brasserie and brewery