In 2000, three African undergraduates at MIT, inspired by their experience with MIT’s LeaderShape leadership training program, founded an organization whose goal was to give students in the developing world the programming skills to create locally relevant e-commerce applications. After graduating that spring, two of the students — Paul Njoroge and Martin Mbaya — returned to their native Kenya, along with a fellow alumnus and a graduate student in linguistics, to conduct a six-week course on Java and Linux for 45 undergraduates at Nairobi’s Strathmore University.
In the 11 years since, the organization, Accelerating Information Technology Innovation (AITI), has sent more than 120 MIT students to seven countries — six in Africa, plus Sri Lanka — to train more than 1,500 undergraduates. AITI courses have also spawned a host of mobile-Web startups, including HeHe, which created a car-sharing application and has contracts with both the Rwandan government and with MTN, a telecommunications company with operations in 21 African nations; iChecki, which markets an app for tracking taxi cabs and, in 2010, won not only the entrepreneurship competition that concluded the AITI course in Nairobi but also the peer-recognition award at the MobileMonday conference in Helsinki, Finland; and AroundU, which offers location-based apps and bucked the prevailing trend in Sri Lanka by securing financing without either posting collateral or granting investors a majority stake.
In 2007, Michael Gordon, then a PhD student in computer science, volunteered as an AITI program instructor and was given a free hand in revising the course curriculum. “I saw all the things that MIT was doing to promote entrepreneurship, and I thought, ‘Why can’t we do something like this in Africa or India?’” Gordon says. “I added a mobile-application-development curriculum and a business-plan requirement for the course and organized it like an incubator course at MIT.” That fall, he was named AITI’s director, a post he still holds, as a postdoc.
AITI courses are still six weeks long and have four MIT instructors. Now, however, two of those students are generally graduate students — one from the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and one from the MIT Sloan School of Management — and the other two are undergraduates. The courses also culminate in entrepreneurship competitions, similar to MIT’s celebrated $100K contest.
In 2009, Gordon’s third year as director, the program received a $30,000 grant from Google to conduct its summer course in Kenya. Last summer, with Google’s annual contribution having increased to $150,000, AITI conducted courses in five countries — Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda, Kenya and Sri Lanka. The program intends to expand into three new countries this year. Although the final determinations have yet to be made, Gordon says one of the countries will be in Latin America, one in southeast Asia and the third in West Africa. If all goes according to plan, Google will also increase its annual contribution enough that AITI can hire a full-time coordinator.
Passing the baton
One country where AITI will not be returning, however, is Kenya. Part of AITI’s mission, Gordon explains, is to render itself obsolete — to foster self-sustaining training programs at the universities it partners with. Strathmore University — the site of the first AITI training in 2000 — now offers its own two-year master’s course in mobile-application entrepreneurship.
“AITI activities have been a catalyzer of many other activities in the university related to this area,” says Joseph Sevilla, a senior lecturer at Strathmore. “The experience that we gained through their programs was very useful to structure some modules [of the master’s curriculum].”
Strathmore has also drawn inspiration from AITI’s emphasis on entrepreneurship, Sevilla says. “The university has taken this to the next level,” he says, “and we are in the process of setting up an incubator” — a campus center that would provide resources for fostering students’ entrepreneurial ideas.
“We’re done in Kenya,” Gordon says. “We feel that they have enough local talent and resources to offer these incubator-type classes without our direct intervention. That’s a huge outcome, in my opinion.”
Another part of AITI’s mission, of course, is to give MIT students hands-on experience with economic-development work. Brian Sangudi, an MBA student at Sloan who has lived in Kenya, Liberia and Ivory Coast, says that his ambition has long been to “start a business in East Africa.” Volunteering as an AITI instructor in Kenya last summer “was very meaningful for me,” he says. “It essentially put me at ground zero in terms of technological entrepreneurship in East Africa. Which is exactly what I intend to do after Sloan.”
Christina Riechers, who’s getting an MBA at Sloan as well as a master’s in international development from Harvard University’s Kennedy School, had a similar reaction to her experience teaching in Rwanda. “The questions [students] asked, I found very insightful, and they helped me think about what potential business opportunities there were in the country and also what barriers a 20-year-old Rwandese student would see,” she says. “I want to keep working in the entrepreneurship space in East Africa, so I think it helped me better understand their perspectives.”
But in addition to being professionally useful, Riechers says, the experience was also personally gratifying. ‘The second half of the course, they were actually developing their own business ideas around mobile applications for problems in their communities,” Riechers says. “It was so fun to be around them, because they got so energized once they had that confidence that this was something they could do.”
According to Will Mutua, a former Strathmore student who took the AITI course in 2005, the experience was fun for the students, too. “It did not feel like doing formal schoolwork,” he says. “Perhaps also because we were able to connect with our lecturers, given there wasn’t a huge age difference, we could hang out with them, and they were fun.”
But that’s not to say that the course wasn’t useful, he adds. “It was very practical and engaging,” Mutua says. “Many tech students end up with just technical knowledge and little knowledge about how to take an idea or product and turn it into a sustainable business. That [knowledge] is very valuable.”