Local ecosystem, global impact; Global Entrepreneurship Summit

Last week the eyes of the world were focused on Kenya as Nairobi hosted the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. Launched by the President of the United States Barack Obama in 2009, the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) brings together entrepreneurs and investors from across Africa and around the world annually to showcase innovative projects, exchange new ideas, and help spur economic opportunity. The 2015 GES agenda focused on generating new investments for entrepreneurs, with a particular focus on women and youth.

President Barack Obama waves to the crowd after delivering a speech in Nairobi, Kenya. | AP PhotoPresident Barack Obama waves to the crowd after delivering a speech in Nairobi, Kenya. | AP Photo

The selection of Nairobi as host city for the 2015 GES underscores the fact that Kenya has become a centre for innovation and entrepreneurship. Ushahidi is a big part of that story. In his keynote speech to the Summit President Obama paid tribute to this saying,
“From Zimbabwe to Bangladesh, citizens work to keep elections safe, using the crowdsourcing platform Ushahidi — and that’s a great idea that started right here in Kenya.”
Ushahidi was born out an election centred crisis in Kenya in 2008 and many know how our tools are used during crisis management and disaster response such as the fantastic work by Quakemap.org, an initiative led by Kathmandu Living Labs team, helping coordinate the response to the April 2015 Nepal earthquake. However, at Ushahidi civic maps such as election monitoring or service delivery monitoring and human rights maps, such as those monitoring threats to the freedom of journalists, are a growing part of our work. President Obama choosing to highlight this is significant. Since 2008 Ushahidi’s tools have been used in over 85,000 times in 150 countries around the world. Our core platform has been translated into 49 different languages. People around the world have created over 6 million reports using Ushahidi, which have reached nearly 18 million people. Our staff of 30 technologists, designers, and developers is based in 10 different time zones on 5 continents all coordinated from our headquarters in Nairobi.
Ushahidi’s story is much more than the story of one African technology company that is having global impact. Our spin off company BRCK is developing hardware, designed in Nairobi, that is transforming education, content delivery, natural resource protection through building connectivity devices that are helping individuals and communities that are currently excluded from digital revolution to get online.
In his speech President Obama continued,
“Here in Nairobi, startup incubators are nurturing new businesses every day — maybe some of yours — each with the potential to be the great next Kenyan innovation.”
Ushahidi was instrumental in setting up the iHub, Nairobi’s innovation hub, in 2010, the m:Lab East Africa, the region’s centre for mobile entrepreneurship, in 2011 and Gearbox, Kenya’s first open makerspace for design and rapid prototyping, in 2014. Taken together these organisations have incubated and supported innovators leading to the growth of over 150 companies. Some of these companies such as mFarm and Wezatele were also featured prominently at the GES. Both Wezatele and mFarm are successful startups run by women who are members of the iHub, worked at the iHub, were supported by the iHub and in the case of mFarm incubated at m:lab. This support for women entrepreneurs and innovators is not unique to these two companies, the iHub itself has women in 5 out of 8 positions on its management team.
Taken against this background it is not surprising that Judith Owigar of Akirachix featured prominently during the opening session of the Summit sitting between the co hosts President Obama and President Kenyatta. Akirachix is a not for profit organisation that aims to inspire and develop a successful force of women in technology who will change Africa’s future. Founded in 2010, AkiraChix aims to be the leading women’s network impacting technology in Africa. It’s programs are developed to reach young women at different levels, those in Primary School, High School and University, those working in technology and those who wish to have a career in technology, making it an effectively wholesome program.

United States President Barack Obama on stage at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit with panelists Judith Owigar, co-founder of Akirachix, and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)United States President Barack Obama on stage at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit with panelists Judith Owigar, co-founder of Akirachix, and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

2 out of the 4 Akirachix founders, Angela Oduor Lungati and Linda Kamau, are Ushahidi team members. All 4 are members of the iHub. Akirachix graduates are currently serving internships throughout the ecosystem including as part of the iHub’s design and UX teams.
Ushahidi, in its role as part of the fund manager consortium of the Making All Voices Count Grand Challenge together with HIVOS and IDS supported Akirachix through an innovation competition aimed at stimulating the creation of new channels and tools for governments to embrace citizen feedback. Making All Voices Count Grand Challenge, is a USD 55m global initiative aimed at boosting and enriching the field of transparency and accountability.
In software development, hardware manufacturer, mobile apps, opening opportunities for women in technology, innovation and entrepreneurship support Ushahidi is playing a crucial leadership role in the innovation ecosystem.
One of the most powerful lessons this ecosystem consisting of Ushahidi, BRCK, iHub, m:Lab East Africa, Akirachix, Gearbox and the numerous companies that have grown out of it demonstrates is that when innovation and entrepreneurship is done properly the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Our story, our experience, is not just the story and experience of one company or even one city.
We are excited at the potential of our friends at Lakehub, western Kenya’s technology and innovation hub based in Kisumu, and Swahilibox the technology and innovation open space in Mombasa, and look forward to writing the next chapter of Kenya’s innovation and entrepreneurship story together with them. We are excited at the work Afrilabs, a network organisation for the growing number of Africa based technology and innovation hubs of which the iHub is founding member, is doing and look forward to writing the next chapter of Africa’s innovation and entrepreneurship story together.
We are grateful for the recognition we have received and welcome the opportunity to celebrate our partners and the innovation ecosystem we are part of.
However, we recognise that we are just at the beginning of this journey. We are building this innovation and technology ecosystem in order to develop the appropriate strategies and tools to tackle the key challenges our communities, our cities, our country, our continent and our world are facing. As President Kenyatta said before the Summit
Kenya’s reputation for innovation and enterprise is fully deserved.  It is our habit to take risks in the hope of bettering ourselves, and our country.  That is what led many of our young men and women to go the United States even before independence.  That same spirit inspired the young Kenyans who crafted the Ushahidi app.
We at Ushahidi and our partners in this ecosystem believe, and can demonstrate, how innovation and technology can positively challenge unemployment and poverty, corruption, gender inequality, ecological crimes, human right violations. Next week I will share some ways in which you can partner with us as an individual, community or organisation. Trying to tackle these issues alone is overwhelming. Doing it together is empowering.