Saturday, July 31, 2010

3 (Short) Days in Nairobi

Monday morning I woke up early for breakfast, then rested for the remainder of the morning. I was exhausted from the flight and slept for 10 hours straight, which is really unusual for me. In the afternoon, I made plans to visit my friend Erik Hersman, who was a speaker at Better World '08 (the first year of the conference), and also an organizer of Maker Faire Africa. He has recently moved to Nairobi, where his company, Ushahidi, is based. He runs the company out of the new space he manages, called the iHub. The iHub is a workspace and incubator for small, mostly software, companies. The space is almost completely outfitted, though they have some touch-ups to do, and they will be renting out desk space to small companies in the coming months. They also have a great little cafe.

Monday night I met up with my friend Claudia, who works for a local NGO that does conflict resolution. They mostly work in the northeastern and northwestern parts of the country, so she often goes on field trips. Luckily, she had just returned from teaching a week-long workshop, so we were able to get together. We went to Java, a local cafe/coffee shop. Many of the people who go there are foreigners or the more cosmopolitan Kenyans, only due to the fact that most Kenyans don't drink coffee, so why go to a coffee shop? Everyone here drinks tea with lots of milk and sugar, which is great because I love tea. The best is the kind with lemongrass. It was great catching up with her, and so strange to hang out with a Brown friend while in Kenya, of all places.

Tuesday I ventured out of the guest house for a walk to the city centre, to use the ATM – big trip, I know! During the daytime, many people are out walking to or from work or taking a stroll during lunch hour. Only one guy hassled me about going on safari while I was out, so I consider myself lucky. After I returned and had lunch, I heard from Clarice, whom I had called the previous day. We arranged to meet the next day in the early afternoon. Then I headed to University of Nairobi to check out the Fab Lab there. I was able to network my way in, thanks to Steve, who got me in touch with Dominic Wanjihia, who works closely with the lab manager, Dr. Gachigi. Unfortunately, I was not able to meet Dominic or Dr. Gachigi during the one hour that I had to stop by the Fab Lab, but worked out with them that I would return later in the afternoon.

At 3, I headed to the IBM Nairobi office, where I met Tony Mwai, Country General Manager for IBM in Kenya, who also manages all operations in the East African region, which includes about 6 countries. He is a Kenyan, who lived and worked in the U.S. for 25 years, before being repatriated back to Kenya by IBM. He was a very nice guy and we had an interesting discussion, so I will definitely have a few things to look into once I return to the U.S. and to regular and speedy internet access. Most of the IBM websites won't load at the speeds I have been able to access here. After my meeting with Tony, I headed back to the University of Nairobi to try and meet Dr. Gachigi. When I arrived, I found Dominic there, and he told me about the biogas project he is working on, which sounds really great. There are pictures and more info on Erik Hersman's blog at

Finally, about an hour later, Dr. Gachigi arrived, and we spoke a bit about the projects going on in the lab as well as some of his goals as the lab manager. There are many students who use the lab, as well as some community members. They are also doing a program to incubate businesses started by students and other community members. Dr. Gachigi invited me to come back the next day in the late morning to hear more about some of the businesses, because they were going to be having a session about presenting to potential funders.

Wednesday I had to pack everything up in the morning and check out, as I would be flying out to Kisumu in the early evening. I hung around the reception area for a while, then called a cab to pick me up and bring me to the university. I think I forgot to mention that the driver that I used for most of the time in Nairobi was name Elephant. When I asked his name, he said, “Elephant.” I said, “Excuse me?” And he repeated, “Elephant.” I said, “Could you spell that?” He started to spell, “E-L-E...” and I interrupted. “Like the animal?” “Yes.” And then we both laughed. Anyway, he was very nice and took good care of me. While at the university, I learned more about the different businesses that were being incubated at the Fab Lab, mostly software and mobile applications, but there was also Dominic's company, which works on tools for rural development, as well as a company developing sanitary pads from local materials. (Julie, if you're reading this, I got her card for you!) I thought it was SHE, but it turned out to be a different social enterprise. I also met two Americans who had recently moved to Nairobi to start a venture capital firm. They'll be funding middle-level companies, who fall between SMEs and the very large corporations, which is very exciting for Kenya, as there is great demand for this type of funding.

Afterwards, I met Clarice back at the guest house and we (of course) went to Java for chicken and chips, a tradition from last summer. It was really fun to see her, and we had a great time catching up. She even brought me maize! I was so happy. We called Alice (her daughter) after lunch to say hi, and I wish she had been there with us. Then I had to go to the airport already. My time in Nairobi went too fast, as always seems to happen. Getting things done quickly is difficult, especially with all of the traffic and the fact that everyone is always late, but such is life. It was a fun three days.


  1. Hi Sharon! Thanks for getting sanitary pad company info for me. I'd love to learn more about them.

  2. Julie - thanks for being a faithful commenter on my blog! Miss you too and I'm hanging on to that business card for you, but if I can find it now, I'll send you the info.