Nairobi, Kenya, is home to one of three innovation ‘garages’ in Africa (the other two are in Cape Town and Lagos.) Through hosting events, providing technologically-integrated workspaces, and offering direct support to community startups, the Nairobi Garage has become a cultural hub for startups, as well as an economic one.
“Nairobi is top in Africa in terms of innovation,” Hannah Clifford, the general manager of the Nairobi Garage said. “There are just so many opportunities here [for entrepreneurs]– and little competition if you are running a business well, because there are so many other businesses doing it poorly [and] providing an over-priced service, or a terrible website.”
Clifford relocated to Western Kenya on a peacebuilding project in 2011, after working with refugee populations in the UK. In 2012, Clifford moved to Nairobi to pursue work outside the NGO sector, discovering the Nairobi Garage through a friend who worked in the space.
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Like hubs elsewhere, the facility is an environment for startups to build networks, share ideas, and collaborate– all while introducing domestic and foreign investors to an innovative talent pool, specialized in solving Kenyan business challenges.
“[A] major challenge in Nairobi is getting a meeting or intro with the right person within an organization who can make things happen,” Clifford said. “The Garage [lobbies directly] on behalf of our members to corporates, investors and other relevant actors. Some of the more established startups also help the younger ones by opening doors to corporate brands. There is a lot of business being done between the different companies within the space.”
Through the sponsorship of physical hubs for entrepreneurship, corporations support a culture for building and discussing startups. Google for Entrepreneurs sponsors ‘third place’ locations worldwide, including each of the three startup garages in Africa.
Clifford notes that Nairobi’s startup culture on the whole is very young, but that recently, the Garage has begun hosting older entrepreneurs who are trying at a technological startup for the first time. She believes this experience will make a big difference in the success of the sector.
A study by the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training suggests that 85-90% of jobs will require proficiency in information and communications technology (ICT) skills by 2020; and while university training and regulation can help in the development of ICT workers, so do physical hubs that assist in networking and team building.
“If you look at Silicon Valley, many of the successful startups owe it all to those few initial employees who came onboard and worked their asses off.” Clifford said. “The startups that do well in Nairobi have a founder that has managed to build a very core team of dedicated employees who live and breathe the company– and that is difficult to do. It takes a special kind of founder, who is also a leader.”
Startup communities are more capable of fostering a thriving, innovative culture when they’re able to openly celebrate failure alongside success. This cultural exercise is made possible with the help of hubs like the Nairobi Garage, in which innovators can host educational events, test ideas collaboratively, and experience success– and failure– with loving support.
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