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Open innovation is key to the success of iHub and can change the working culture of any community of innovators, says Linda Kamau.

iHub is a network and meeting place that enables Kenya's innovators to bring their ideas to fruition. Through iHub, the technology community, industry, academia, investors and venture capitalists can meet, share ideas and collaborate.

The centre is the first of its kind to operate in Kenya. It allows technologies to progress from the ideas stage to becoming real products and the key to its effectiveness is open innovation — the process of combining internal and external ideas, as well as internal and external paths to market, to advance the development of new technologies.

iHub has embraced the principles of open innovation by nurturing an enabling environment and a collaborative space where a community of technology entrepreneurs can grow and share ideas. This process can change the working culture of any technology hub and stimulate its capacity to create innovative products.

Open innovation

iHubs work by embracing principles of open innovation. They are driven by members who work together on common interests. Through the space provided by iHub, members develop the skills they need to turn their ideas into actions: they build a vivid vision, a team and a business plan, with help from an in-house business unit. The dynamic synergy created by these interactions is what fuels the community as a whole.

Membership is open and free to those who work in programming, design or research. There are three levels of membership: 'white' members are those who wish to be part of the iHub community virtually, but cannot be physically present; those who work on specific projects ('green' members) can have face-to-face meetings, socialise, and surf the web; 'red' membership offers a semi-permanent desk and priority to use the meeting room, for a monthly fee.

Internet connectivity is often a core part of supporting start-up development. The electronic arts brand Zuku has provided iHub with affordable, high-speed Internet, which helps to accelerate collaborations among members.

With its institutional values of integrity and community, entrepreneurism, quality and continual improvement, iHub offers a welcoming, open and happy environment where members can share experience, skills and friendship.

The collaborative space facilitates open discussions among young entrepreneurs, investors, potential business partners, mentors and other members experienced in working with telecommunication companies such as Google and Nokia.

Sharing knowledge is vital; an isolated community of people in a hub, looked after by a privileged few, will not survive for long. A knowledge-sharing culture built up through collaboration, start-ups helping each other, skill sharing and mentorship are key features of the iHub community.

At an individual level, iHub members strive to improve their skills and knowledge about relevant issues or current trends by engaging with the resources available through the open innovation space, such as education events and mentorship from experts within the community.

Innovations taken to market

Several innovations have arisen out of the iHub model of collaboration.

M-Farm was invented by young Kenyan Jamila Abass. It is a mobile-phone service that delivers real-time information to farmers on current market prices, weather alerts and agro-supplies in their area. It also brings farmers together to buy or sell their products in groups, helping them to gain access to larger markets.

M-Farm enables farmers to carry out a cost-benefit analysis before deciding where to sell their products. The analysis is based on the profile of their business, as well as market prices in different countries. It also answers their queries through the interactive voice response function, with voice controls in both English and Swahili.

Another mobile phone application, iCow, helps in the management of herds by allowing farmers to receive tailored information, for example, about cattle prices and veterinary care.

Innovations such as the eLimu tablet computer are helping Kenyan primary school students to improve their test scores and IT literacy. This is intended to boost their engagement in learning and promote responsible citizenship for sustainable development through education in environmental conservation, applied science, agriculture and human rights.

The eLimu tablet has a simple design and includes features such as 3-D animations to help students understand complex ideas, games to strengthen cognitive thinking, quizzes and access to online Q&A forums with teachers.

The accounting package Uhasibu helps small and medium-sized enterprises to work within Kenya's legislation and procedures. For a small subscription fee, the online application can be used to generate VAT reports, monitor petty cash and keep track of payments without buying expensive financial management software.

The open innovation process adopted by iHub is not just a powerful tool, but a choice to engage in the 21st century in an entirely different way. It is about co-working, using ideas and knowledge from both within and outside the community, and creating paths to market for new technologies.

Linda Kamau is a software developer at Ushahidi, a non-profit technology company, based in Nairobi, Kenya.