"The idea was that we would work and talk together," says Erik Hersman, founder of the Nairobi, Kenya–based technology center iHub, "and that by putting a lot of smart people in the room, good things would happen." So far, so good: In 2013, the three-year-old iHub passed 10,000 members.
Hersman and a few dozen colleagues created the center as a hybrid between a coworking space and a university commons, a place that could house startups, offer superfast Internet connections to freelancers, serve as an office for Africa's most ambitious coders, and link Kenyans to a host of outside companies--such as Microsoft and Intel--seeking to connect with local technologists.
Already, 152 companies have grown out of the iHub petri dish, many dedicated to applying technology to Africa-specific problems. On a typical day, about 250 members stop by, allowing an otherwise disparate corps of engineers to team up, exchange ideas, and sometimes make business deals. As the tech giants' interest in the African market grows, iHub has become the place where execs such as Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Google chairman Eric Schmidt decamp, declaim, and debrief when visiting the region.
Above all, it has helped dispel the notion that Africa's tech community is somehow lacking in ideas, talent, or ambitions. "It's too early to make comparisons to Silicon Valley," says iHub's executive director, Josiah Mugambi. "But there is vast potential in getting there."