Q: Please tell us about yourself, educational background and the path that led you to LakeHub. What challenges did you face and overcome?
Tome: My name is Chandi Tome, I was born and raised in the lakeside city of Kisumu in Western Kenya. My first proper interaction with the computer was in high school, but I never got to do much with it until I completed secondary education. I worked as an IT engineer in a few private firms and NGOs, and even though by global standards I would not really consider myself be a “ rock star” IT guy, many people always relied on me on technological advise ranging from networking to usage of utility software. I spent my early twenties traveling across Eastern and Southern Africa, seeking thrill and adventure, and during my journeys I discovered that perhaps the most important skill I ever possessed was in computing. This is because I have often felt at home sharing my knowledge in technology with others. As a result, I have helped inspire a couple of people kick-start a career in Information Technology and Computer Science. It is all these small achievements that led to the creation LakeHub, an innovation hub co-founded by my colleague James Odede, based out of Kisumu. For quite a while, I had been aching to take part in a major community-driven initiative that would help transform society in a way, and LakeHub seems to have provided that platform at the right time. So in 2014, I left my day job and decided to team up with James to build the community and establishing partnerships for individual community members and for the hub as a whole - even though I did not really know how, given my prior lack of experience.
After approximately, a little more that year, I am more than excited to report on the progress we have made. We have successfully managed to build an ecosystem that is already churning out innovators.
In a nutshell, I consider myself a computer scientist with a keen interest in sparking the interest in technology among the marginalized in Africa. I am currently pursuing a Computer Science degree at the University of the People, California. In addition, I recently cofounded a health startup, Ask Without Shame: http://askwithoutshame.com/.
Q: Tell us about LakeHub: Why LakeHub? And who created it? What programs and services do you offer and who do you serve?
Tome: LakeHub, as you would expect, is a hub, by the lake. In this case, an innovation and technology space that is free and open to anyone that is curious about learning new technologies, sharing knowledge and working with others to solve local challenges. The hub was founded by students, businessmen and expats who happen to have an interest in technology and shared the common belief that despite a thriving technology ecosystem in Kenya's Nairobi, thanks to the iHub, we needed to decentralize such activities to marginalized areas such as Kisumu. We have programmers, designers and entrepreneurs who use our space to work on personal projects, brainstorm, and in theory expected to work together to solve local challenges with the help of technology. As a result, you could find at LakeHub a world-class programmer and professional photographer working alongside a medical expert on a common project.
Other than serving the primary purpose of being a coworking space, we intend to assembling a startup engineering tool that would supply startups and businesses the very much needed labor in technology from necessary mentoring, marketing, programming to financing. Since we have also experienced a surge in the number of people who want to study programming, we are looking into redistributing the available skillset to those members who may need it in a more structured manner.
This leads me to two major projects we have founded, Village Code - dedicated to introducing children and marginalized people the skill of coding - and more recently we joined the global Mozilla Clubs network, where we have pledged to teach the web to the next one billion citizens.
Since we have a space that is big enough to carry out medium-sized training and workshops, we are providing our premises for hiring to tech companies and entrepreneurs who want to engage directly with the community. This is so far our most reliable source of funding that goes directly into paying the rent and ensuring we always have a functional Internet connection.
Q: Please elaborate on two of LakeHub’s projects: VillageCode.org (Why coding?) and Mozilla Kisumu?
Tome: Village Code was founded with the knowledge that coding is inevitably becoming one of the most valuable skills of the 21st century, and developing nations seem not to be doing much to equip populations with the skills to help ramp up their economies which are becoming increasingly more reliant on technology. By teaching code to kids we are hoping to make them not to play catch up, but to leapfrog the impending menace ahead. We hope to see these children become more innovative and help build the next million-dollar businesses, if not building innovations that would help disrupt governance.
As a Mozilla Club, LakeHub has pledged to teach the community on ways in which it can responsibly participate on the web. Taking full control of their web footprint and encouraging them to not only be consumers, but also builders of content that is useful and be potentially transformative to society, and this can be done through privacy and security lessons and lessons that are structured to encourage coding, learning, on and for the web.
One would probably ask, so what next after equipping members with these skills? Well, we are currently engaging corporate, local governments and non-governmental organizations to understand their technological needs so that we can meet them. The community at LakeHub is able to handle many of the programming and design thinking needs based on the few pilots we have already done. Indeed, you can conclude that the ecosystem is already creating opportunities.
Q: What challenges does LakeHub currently face? And what opportunities do you see in the future for your organization?
Tome: Funding is a major concern. We need money to run the space on a daily basis. In order to do this, we must ensure that we pay for the most important things, like rent and high speed Internet. But even if we covered those, we would still need funding to transform the hub into a fully creative environment and that means adding more and better furniture and, perhaps, serving coffee.
Our outreach programs are also demanding. Volunteers who work on the Village Code project for example, have to figure out how to get to the venue on their own, the kids we teach, are also taken through the lessons without refreshments, because we do not provide any form of allowance - we have nothing to give these well-meaning people. This means that these activities cannot scale, with the current state of accounts - therefore the kind of impact we have set out to achieve may be hampered for a foreseeable future.
But we shall keep doing what we do because this is what we love. Organizations wishing to partner with us on any of these projects are more than welcome to send us a shout, then we can figure out how to rope in more techies/learners/doers into our programs.
Q: In your opinion, what groups in Kenya are the most underrepresented in STEM? Secondly, what key steps should we undertake to promote scientific literacy and STEM among these specific science and technology underrepresented groups?
Tome: Young children, say up to the age of 14, those you could term as primary school pupils. In Kenya, despite the government teaching our children a colossal curriculum, it is ironic that not many, by the age of 14, have a proper grasp of technology or means to innovate, and that poses a problem for our economy today and the future. Because we are dealing with a system that has been in place for a while, changing this may not be possible overnight. Private players, like LakeHub, can find ways of deliberately integrating lessons into the current curriculum, like say through after-school sessions that are structured to impart knowledge and skills centered on STEM in order to allow more learners advance early enough into the field of science and technology.
Q: In your estimation, what is the importance of STEM education, innovation, technology, entrepreneurship and investment as well as infrastructures and the rule of law in the socio-economic development of Kenya?
Tome: There's not a single shred of doubt that we are inevitably headed (or are we there yet?) toward a world that is globalized. This means that Kenya, already well-positioned as one of Africa's leaders in innovation, will need to make deliberate efforts in educating her people in order to remain globally competitive. Rwanda, to use an example, is already preparing her children for this inevitable future by putting major emphasis on STEM and backing this efforts with infrastructure and building sustainable systems. In a foreseeable future it therefore won't be surprising to find major innovations coming from a relatively smaller nation that is doing the right things right now. Perhaps, you could argue, that we are a much bigger nation and that our problems are much more intricate than those of Rwanda, or solving these problems demands much more sophisticated approaches - but that does not change the ultimate constant, STEM Education, innovation, technology and a major emphasis on entrepreneurial spirit are going to be key drivers of our African economies in just a few years.
Q: Finally, technology, youth and entrepreneurship, is this a winning combination in your opinion?
Tome: Certainly. Thanks to education and improved access to information (especially the Internet and a more mature mass media in comparison to many African countries) a large section of our determined youth would be caught up between individual pursuit for a cause and mild to extreme forms of information overload. This therefore calls for more aggressive initiatives that can help provide many of these youth into spending their valuable time learning technology that can help them come up with innovations subsequently giving them the courage to pursue entrepreneurial causes rather than just sit back and wait to be employed.