Inside East Africa's Tech Hubs Part 2: Culture

by Jonathan Kalan, March 14, 2013

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In Part Two of this three-part photo series “Inside East Africa’s Hubs”, we take a look at one essential yet easily overlooked ingredient of east Africa’s co-working spaces: culture.

(Note: these hubs represent the co-working spaces in East Africa but are not an exhaustive list. For part 1, see Inside 7 of East Africa's Hottest Tech Hubs).

A healthy “company culture” is something that any organization hoping to retain employees and increase worker productivity must develop.

Google, for one, proved its worth in the early 2000’s by having one of the most fun and employee-centric offices to work in; as a result, the tech giant was able to attract and retain some of the world’s best talent as it went about “organizing the world’s information.”

Inside Africa’s hubs, it’s no different. These hubs are living, breathing, hacking ecosystems, which, although they support many unique companies and entrepreneurs, also have to develop distinctive cultures of their own- spoken and unspoken rules, events, traditions, and customs.

Sometimes quirky, sometimes serious, in the end these rules simply serve to help fuse work with play, creativity and comfort, to build a true sense of community.

Few entrepreneurs enjoy working in isolation all the time, especially when tinkering with new technologies, diving off the deep end of coding, or launching a start up. Social interaction is welcomed and necessary, whether it’s shooting the breeze about sports or having philosophical discussion about the future of mobile money. One of the greatest accomplishments of these hubs, in my opinion, is how within many of them a true sense of family and fraternity develops.

Yet this sense of “family”, and the trust and respect that comes with it, doesn’t emerge simply by entrepreneurs working side by side. It emerges from the countless events, parties, foosball championships, soccer games, hackathons, and workshops that these spaces hold. They encourage collaboration and friendly competition, plant the seeds of trust, and get entrepreneurs and developers to come out of their shells and poke around in each other’s business a little bit.

Nairobi’s iHub holds hackathons, launch events and presentations nearly every night of the week. Kinu is hosting “Startup Saturdays.” TanzICT holds “Mobile Mondays,” and kLab hosts “eUmuganda” (Electronic Umuganda, an e-version of the physical monthly street cleanup that all Rwandans must take part in).

Much of the culture, interestingly enough, revolves around food and drinks. Pete’s coffee, inside Nairobi’s iHub, keeps tenants freshly caffeinated all day long (seriously, try the espresso milkshakes!), and Rose’s (the barista) wonderful smile and small chat helps keep us all sane.

Pete has also recently opened a burrito shop downstairs, now enabling entrepreneurs to stay close and connected all day long- without having to leave for lunch.

At Rwanda’s kLab, board member Eric Newcomer is known to make a mean espresso at the venue’s rather grandiose bar. This culture often seeps into the company cultures of ventures born out of these spaces, as well. Traditions like iHub’s free “Pizza Friday” has been adopted by companies like Kopo Kopo, a mobile payments startup that has outgrown the space and set up its own office a few floors down in the same building.

Culture is key to the survival of these hubs, and by making a workspace both fun and engaging for entrepreneurs, they work to strike a fine balance that lies somewhere between a nerdy frat house and a university laboratory. 

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Jonathan Kalan is journalist and photographer specializing in technology, innovation and social development in emerging markets. A graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara, he has traveled to over 43 countries and collaborated with NGO’s, social enterprises, technology start ups, and media companies, and was a Diageo Africa Business Reporting Awards 2011 Finalist. He is currently based in Nairobi, Kenya, where he freelance for various media outlets including BBC, Huffington Post, and CS Monitor, and also serves as Sandbox Network's Nairobi co-ambassador. He can be found on his website and on Twitter at @KalanThinks.

 

 
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