Kenya's Startup Boom

David Talbot | Technology Review | March 1, 2012

If you travel back up a rutted dirt road from Kibera and turn right on the Ngong Road, just past the Uchumi Hypermarket, you'll see a five-story office building completed in 2009. From the patio ringing the top floor, a haze from diesel fumes and the cooking fires of Kibera's shacks is visible just beyond the crest of a hill. But step inside, and it feels as if you've been transported to a Silicon Valley startup. Dozens of twentysomethings toil away on laptops; a few blow off steam at a foosball table; Pete's coffee bar (not to be confused with Peet's of the United States) doles out cappuccinos, milk shakes, and slabs of banana bread.

This is a business incubator called iHub, the fruit of a homegrown information technology culture that had its coming-of-age moment in December 2007. That month, ethnic violence broke out after a disputed presidential election; at least 1,100 people died and 300,000 were displaced. Ory Okolloh, a human-rights activist, put out a call to Kenya's loosely knit blogging and technology community to help report on the fighting (see "Frustrated Innovation").

Several people responded, including Erik Hersman, Juliana Rotich, and David Kobia. In 48 hours, Kobia had written the first draft of an incident-reporting platform called Ushahidi, the Swahili word for "testimony." Now any Kenyan could send in an eyewitness report by text message, and it would be reviewed and then posted on an online map. Ushahidi has since been used widely, in countries including Haiti, South Africa, Russia, and the United States (where it helped map flood-related problems on the Missouri River)...