27 Jul

Nairobi tech start-ups get creative

By Katie Hartin, MSc student, Africa and International Development

Occupying the fourth floors of Piedmont Plaza and Bishop Magua Centre, respectively, the Nairobi Garage and iHub offer bright, open rooms where young entrepreneurs and tech developers can link across both physical and virtual space.

Tucked away from the bustle of Nairobi streets, these initiatives offer unique sites of connectivity and innovation, facilitating access to tools, training, internet, electricity, and a seemingly never-ending supply of coffee.


Nairobi Garage is a creative and funky office space for start-ups that are perhaps too new to warrant leasing their own offices, but whose staff type rapidly at their computers, hoping to transform their concepts into viable businesses.

With an open floor-plan, a red telephone box for taking private calls, and plants in motorbike tyres instead of pots, the Garage epitomises the Silicon Savannah image, the quirky and whimsical aesthetics of Google offices set in East Africa.

At Nairobi Garage

At Nairobi Garage


The décor aside, what Nairobi has done in terms of innovation is uniquely its own. In conversations with my fellow teammates, we often remarked at how some technologies that have been incredibly successful in Kenya may not directly transfer to other contexts and vice-versa.

For many Kenyan companies, limitations offer new pathways for innovation, especially when it comes to developing SMS-based apps for users without internet.

One example is TotoHealth, which allows parents with limited access to healthcare services to receive text reminders for their child’s vaccinations or to enquire about any symptoms a child might be showing.

Our iHub tour guide, John Paul, mentioned that most development is being aimed at such phone-based technologies because the vast majority of the Kenyan market lacks desktop or laptop connectivity.

John Paul shows us round

John Paul shows us round


The Kenya tech community’s commitment to keeping software open-source and to developing technologies that are viable in rural or poorer areas is inspiring, but there is considerable economic inequality within Kenya and infrastructure barriers seem to be limiting tech development to certain pockets of the country.

What Kenya has managed to do well is to work around these limitations to create products that fill their own unique needs and they will likely continue to do so, but the developers themselves remain a relatively privileged and highly educated subset of the Kenyan population.

Akirachix, which has a training programme based at iHub, offers scholarships to girls and young women from disadvantaged backgrounds to attend courses to further their computer skills.

By diversifying the tech community (as self-proclaimed ‘Geek Girls’), they can offer new solutions to the problems they are most familiar with and perhaps bring their own innovations to the Kenyan and East African markets.


Even as a social scientist/tech novice, I felt a thrill visiting these institutions. The excitement around tech is tangible and contagious in these environments, but many tech developers appear to be determined to not only simplify life, but also to improve it.

Enthusiastic and talented people work collaboratively to share knowledge and skills that incorporate aspects of moral and civic responsibility, like Ujirani, an initiative for reporting instances of violence or insecurity in neighbourhoods.

These types of initiatives reveal the dedication of developers to tackling social challenges and designing practical apps for broad audiences, not just flashy programmes for wealthy elites.

This kind of grassroots approach certainly proved an inspiration to our team. Now if only we could do something about that Nairobi traffic…

Bio: Katie Hartin is an MSc student of Africa and International Development and recently completed her fieldwork with Olare Orok and Motorogi Trust in Maasai Mara, southern Kenya. With a background in Environmental Studies, she is particularly interested in conservation, sustainable development, and the gendered effects of livelihood diversification strategies.