Nairobi’s tech scene makes headway into its slums

Jfam Bravura is a supervisor at the Keepod Community Center in the Mathare settlement of Nairobi. The center provides internet access for residents on old computers made functional by an inexpensive piece of hardware. (Greg Scruggs)

NAIROBI, Kenya — This city has one of Africa’s hottest technology scenes, making it a fitting host for the entrepreneurship summit that has U. S. President Barack Obama visiting this weekend.

In the Kilimani neighborhood, tech startups are hatching out of dynamic incubators such as iHub and GrowthHub. Meanwhile, glass office towers are rising as global giants such as Google, IBM and Intel site local offices there. These developments were the subject of a Citiscope feature story in April.

The situation is much different in Nairobi’s teeming slums, home to 2.5 million people or about 60 percent of the city’s population. Here, finding a toilet, let alone an iMac, can be a challenge. But efforts are underway to bring more computers into these areas, and to train people how to use them, so that Nairobi’s poorest residents might have a reasonable shot at joining the economic boom across town.

I recently visited a few such initiatives in Mathare, a densely packed shantytown where narrow lanes are jammed with street hawkers and the springy bop of benga music fills the air.

One of the projects is the Keepod Community Center, a brand new structure made of corrugated tin and plywood that opened in December. Inside, 20 kids ages eight to ten clustered around an old laptop playing a computer game. Next to them, a 21-year-old researched camera techniques as part of his plans to become a self-taught professional photographer. At the last terminal, a couple of teenagers were grooving to a Kenyan hip-hop video on YouTube.

The center is a demonstration site for Keepod, an Israeli-Italian venture aiming to give old computers a new life in impoverished areas. Keepod developed a US$ 7 flash drive that contains an Android operating system. Plug it into a USB port, and almost any old clunker of a computer can be turned into a perfectly functional machine. With an internet connection — 3G wireless data signals are surprisingly strong in Mathare — it’s easy to send email, browse the web or use web-based applications.

With Keepod, there’s no need for an expensive computer or proprietary software. And since Keepod runs on software developed for smartphones, it’s intuitive to use — “like Android with a mouse,” says Jfam Bravura, one of the community center’s supervisors.

Today, Keepods are available in 80 countries as part of a global effort to chip away at the digital divide — almost 60 percent of the world’s population still goes without regular Internet access. But the company chose Mathare as its first big demonstration site because of the same features that has Kilimani booming across town: Nairobi is an English-speaking city with relatively good connectivity for the developing world. In fact, the 3G in Mathare works better than the electricity — so laptops with batteries can work right through the frequent power disruptions.

The Keepod center doesn’t offer computer classes — it’s just providing access to computers and the internet. But you don’t have to go far in Mathare to find more robust training.

A few hundred meters away on the third floor of a concrete building is a more formal education center called the Balozi Training Institute. When I visited, five female students were there, intently learning how to program spreadsheet formulas in Microsoft Excel. There are classes here in both basic computer literacy as well as more advanced skills like graphic design.

“Our students are low-income learners who never had training or even access to computers at schools,” says institute president Daniel Mongeri. “After our training, they are qualified to be front-office receptionists, secretaries, printers, typists.” Those kinds of jobs are a big leap for Mathare residents, who earn as little as US$ 1.25 a day. They have to save up for the classes, however: They cost from $US 70 to $US 240.

Another training initiative is AkiraChix. It’s a side project run by Angela Lungati, who handles community engagement for Ushahidi, a nonprofit tech company with deep roots in Nairobi’s startup scene. AkiraChix works with low-income women, helping them their raise their computer skills and mentor them into the startup world. So far the program has 61 graduates, including some who have landed internships at the iHub startup incubator.

To be sure, these initiatives have hardly put a dent in Nairobi’s poverty. But for some people they’ve opened opportunities that didn’t exist before. As Lungati puts it, “The odds of slum kids getting computer and Internet access is much higher now than it was before Nairobi’s tech ecosystem began.”

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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