iHub: A lab away from the lab

By Lisa Katayama, 4 years ago

After two weeks of drinking Stoney Tangawizi (plain African ginger soda, no stoney stuff!), I’m back at the lab and I’ve been told I’m a shade browner now (which, by the way, is a good thing). Spent two last weeks of June, collaborating with Juliana on GrassRootsMobile, our prepaid electricity power-strip for Kenya. I was fortunate to be a subject in the one of the first experiments at DFellows to see how the program can facilitate collaborations between ML students and the fellows.


In Nairobi, thanks to Jessica, I setup my base camp at iHub Research. As it had to be, my Macbook broke within a couple of days. Things are quite expensive in Kenya, even a simple screwdriver set sets you back by 2000Ksh (~25$). Luckily, iHub is a very resourceful community –  I met Paul, who magically had everything needed to fix my laptop.  Here are Jessica and Angela looking curiously at my disassembled macbook as I struggle to fix it.

One of the main objectives of my trip was to add support for the M-Pesa mobile payments to GrassRoots. M-Pesa, by far, is one of the most popular cellular payment systems used in Kenya. People have found all sorts of interesting ways to use M-Pesa. Its used to pay salaries, some use it as their main bank account and many others use it to buy groceries. No wonder there are a number of companies that build business platforms for mobile payments. With help from Kariuki of ZegeTech and Ben of Kopo-kopo, it didn’t take long to get GrassRoots to accept M-Pesa payments. See the demo video here.


Juliana and I organized a demo session for GrassRoots at the iHub co-working space. We connected one of the iHub news TVs to GrassRoots and put up handwritten posters asking people to donate 10 Kenyan shillings to send 100Watt-minutes of power to the TV.

This was quite helpful, besides earning 40Ksh in donations (of which I promptly bought myself a small cup of tea!), I got a lot of information from people who knew local situations much better than I could hope to get a grasp of in my short trip.  The session introduced me to other exciting companies that work with electricity and power in Kenya. One such company– Winafrique – takes care of wind and solar off-grid power solutions for cellular base stations. Here is Tony, the founder of Winafrique, playing around with a GrassRoots prototype during the session. Including Tony, people found the box maker style enclosure quite interesting. (Seems like a workshop on simple mechanical fabrication would be a hit in Kenya)


Later, during my trip, I accompanied Tony to one of Winafrique’s installation sites on the top of a hill in Masailand. A huge amount of surplus electricity is generated at sites such as these to ensure good uptime. At this particular site, a wind turbine and a solar generator, backed by two diesel generators produce an average of 12Kva of electric power while the base station hardware  consumes a mere 2Kva. So, why does the GSM company bother maintaining a base station at such a remote location? The answer is M-Pesa. While the revenue made off phone calls is very small, many Masai people use M-Pesa as their only bank account and transaction charges are significant. Distributing this surplus electricity to the neighboring communities would be an interesting usecase for GrassRoots. How do these communities function without power right now? Small solar panels. They produce enough electricity to charge phones and light a couple of LED lights during the night. I asked Tony why is it that hand-crank cellphones never took off. He looked at me and simply said, “Just because we’re poor doesn’t mean we’re stupid. You can’t expect people to mindlessly crank a phone for 20 minutes assuming they have nothing better to do in their life.” I learned a very important lesson.


iHub, just like the Media Lab, is lots of work AND lots of fun at the same time. I got to meet very interesting people. Here’s David who’s a software consultant by the day, concert photographer by the evening and a time-lapse rig hacker by the night.

Jimmy Gitonga is the manager at iHub. He’s also a well of knowledge on African anthropology. In the couple of hours I spent chatting with Jimmy, I found answers to many ill-formed questions I had about Kenya and Africa, such as why is Swahili written in the latin alphabet? How did British take control over the Masailand? How are India and East Africa connected culturally? Why are Matatus called that? And to answer to the last question, they were initially called Ma3(s), well because you could go anywhere in the city for 30Ksh. After sometime, ‘three’ got replaced by its kiswahili counterpart–tatu, so Matatu.


Sankei, Kelly and Kirui are starting UpStart Africa, a social enterprise incubator with a reality TV show of its own. They’re scouting Kenya to find 40 technopreneurs who would all be the participants in the show. True to reality TV traditions, each week a panel of VC judges will send one team home. With the TV show, the first of its kind in Africa, they are hoping to seed in Kenya a culture that celebrates innovation and invention. Very exciting (India needs this too, ML India Initiative, listening?)!

Another interesting person I met was James Orengo – security manager at iHub. What a lot of people don’t know about James is that he’s also a fantastic musician and a yet to be unleashed entrepreneur (yes, he’s planning to start a small lunch restaurant – he described it to me as a place where you know, people go to eat lunch :) ). Here’s James singing ‘Baki Salama’, a kiswahili gospel song.

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In summary – this was a positively overwhelming experience in many ways: I tested GrassRoots in Nairobi, experienced  situations where GrassRoots might make a difference, learned some Swahili, came up with some more interesting ideas for Africa, climbed Mount Kenya and came back to the lab with a big grin on my face. To which Ethan said “I went to Africa for the first time when I was 21 and I fell in love with it. I’m happy that it had the same corrupting influence on you ;)”

Tutaonana badayee!
Many thanks Lisa, Juliana, Joe, Ethan and Nathan!