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Social Innovation in Kenya: No Translation Necessary

Even before I packed my bags and headed to New York to enroll at DSI, I’ve had to explain what design for social innovation means to everyone from my grandpa to my coworkers to my landlord.  I’ve practiced a variety of different versions of my spiel, so when I decided to spend the summer in Nairobi, Kenya, I wondered if the idea would require additional antidotes and cross cultural translations? 

Spoiler alert: No translation necessary.  It was me that had to cut the jargon out of my explanation.  Why?  Because designing breakthrough business that have the potential to impact thousands of lives isn’t a buzzword in Kenya, it’s simply good business strategy.  Kenyans aren’t over thinking it – they’re just doing it.

At the iHub, a co-working space that attracts aspiring entrepreneurs in Nairobi, there are plenty of people bringing start-up concepts like Uber and Seamless to Kenya and revamping them for the local consumer.  But the copycat startups are outnumbered by startups that don’t use buzzwords, but are creating products and services that address local concerns.  CladLight, is a great example of this ethos.  The young hardware focused team has created a vest for motorbike drivers that is wired with lights to automatically signal as a driver turns or breaks in order to prevent accidents.  At eLimu, whose founders initially met at the iHub, they’re creating a tablet-based curriculum that helps students learn and prepare for their national exams through interactive, downloadable content.

I was able to work with a start-up that has a similar strategy, but a business model that has already spread outside the boundaries of the continent with customers in over 45 countries.  BRCK is a technology start-up based in Nairobi founded by Erik Hersman, who also launched the iHub.


The BRCK itself is a combination modem and router device that can connect to the internet in four different ways: ethernet, mobile SIM cards, WiFi and the forthcoming BRCKnet, a satellite network.  Much like the iHub attracts entrepreneurs, the BRCK device will attract inventors who can use the device to get online and kickstart the age of the Internet of Things.

As a designer interested in UX, BRCK was the ultimate laboratory to not only help test the new product, but investigate new impact business opportunities in the education and healthcare sectors through a summer internship.

While I kept my Kenyan souvenirs to a minimum, my takeaway is this: If you still don’t understand social innovation, you probably want to pack your bags and head to Nairobi to see it for yourself.

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