5 Tips to Break Into Nairobi’s Startup Scene

· @kenmacharia ·

Nairobi, or “Silicon Savannah” as some tech pundits have christened Kenya’s capital, is arguably the technology hub of Africa. The thriving startup community, the pervasive entrepreneurial spirit, and high-speed Internet access set the city ahead of its peers.

According to research by McKinsey, the Internet contributed 2.9% to Kenya’s GDP in 2013, second in Africa only to Senegal’s 3.3%. The ICT sector as a whole has seen double-digit growth within the last 10 years, contributing 12.1% to Kenya’s economy.

So it’s little wonder that young people in Kenya see technology as the quickest and most practical way to get into entrepreneurship and the labor market. The good news is you don’t even need to be a coder or a programmer to break into the industry. As tech startups expand, they create opportunities for marketers, business developers, sales executives, and managers.

But like every community, Kenya’s tech society has its own unwritten mores and rules, which, for beginners, can be confusing at best and opaque at worst. Rest assured navigating this new world is not as complicated as it seems. You just need to know where to start.

Here are five tips to help you on your way.

1. Join an incubation hub.

Nairobi’s iHub is widely regarded as the pioneer of tech innovation hubs in Africa and has been instrumental in launching at least 150 ICT companies. Budding tech entrepreneurs enjoy the co-creation environment, fast Internet, and invaluable networking and mentorship opportunities. iHub’s model has since been replicated in hubs like m:lab East Africa, GrowthHub, and Nailab.

The government is planning to set up a hub in each of the 47 counties. With their proliferation, it is now far easier to to join a startup incubator at minimal or no cost.

2. Participate in hackathons.

Signing up for app and software developer competitions is a great way to get hands-on experience in a fast-paced and dynamic environment. Participants have an opportunity to present their prototypes to established industry players after a one- or two-day hackathon.

Major brands like Microsoft, Intel, Samsung, and Google either host the hackathons or sponsor portions of it. In addition to offering a cash prize, ICT companies often select future employees from these events.

Even non-tech outlets are getting on board, so don’t assume you have to be a hardcore techie to participate. The BBC recently organized a hackathon to gather fresh ideas on delivering news to its young and connected audience in Africa.

3. Follow government initiatives.

The Kenyan government is rolling out several ICT projects with a view of embedding technology in all sectors and areas of the country by 2030. The country will lay down an additional 1600 km of fiber optic cables to connect all 47 counties by the end of the year.

For the tech savvy and knowledgeable individual, there are numerous opportunities, such as the recently launched Presidential Digital Talent Programme, where entry-level IT professionals can intern with the government and help automate public service processes. The One Laptop Per Child Program also presents opportunities to build custom laptops and to create programs and content for the project.

4. Reach out to venture capitalists.

If you are at the startup stage and have a viable product but not enough capital to launch, you can reach out to venture funds. This may mean you give up a part of your company in exchange for capital. According to VC4Africa, there are 22 venture funds in Kenya, and the lion’s share of their money goes to the technology sector.

But getting capital for your tech venture goes beyond having a good product and a killer pitch. You have to do your due diligence and present a concrete business plan. In addition to financial investment, venture firms can help scale your startup and provide market insights and connections.

5. Connect and create.

Like most industries, human interaction is irreplaceable for getting your foot in the door. Connections and information circulate within the tech industry — it’s also smaller than you may think. A venture capitalist likely has his hand it several startups, and you’ll often recognize the same faces at hackathons and tech conferences.

So get out, connect with the right people, and ask the right questions. You can start by attending the biggest Kenyan tech community celebration where you will meet the movers and shakers in the industry.

Finally, get your feet wet by testing out your idea, whether it’s learning to code an app, writing content for a website, or maintaining a compelling blog. It’s only by creating and experimenting that you will know whether your idea has wings.


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