At the start of April, Kenya was gripped by a two-week fuel crisis. Gas prices had spiked due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the Kenyan government had delayed paying out fuel subsidies to local oil marketing companies. Because fuel prices are fixed by the government regulator every month, selling fuel at that cost — without the subsidy — meant that the oil companies would have had to sell at a loss, so they resorted to rationing the fuel.
Thousands of people queued outside gas stations nationwide. Naturally, many people took to social media to complain, and to share advice and rumors about where supplies were still available. But the rumors often lagged the reality; most information just told people where fuel wasn’t. “The Twitter hashtags on the fuel crisis were taken over by vendors and complaints about the fuel situation, as opposed to giving information about where to find fuel in one’s area, so they weren’t of any use at all,” said Yuri Baraza, a digital marketer and Nairobi resident, who was stuck looking for fuel during the shortages.
One person took it upon himself to cut through the noise. Leonard Gichuho, a Kenyan engineer, who describes himself as a “Pan-Africanist, Afro-optimist, car enthusiast, software engineer, serial tech entrepreneur.” Over the first few days of the crisis, Gichuho built “Iko Where” (Kenyan slang for “where is it?”), a crowdsourced database that collates information on where fuel can be found. The database invites users to share up-to-date information about where they’ve found supplies as well as any other details, such as restrictions on how much fuel they can buy and what payment methods merchants will accept.
“It really came through for us. I think it was a genius idea,” said Baraza, who ended up using the platform to try to find fuel. “The user-generated information was very timely, given that the fuel availability changed by the hour.”
Gichuho, who is currently based in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, on an assignment, was spurred to action after seeing the lines at gas stations. “Seeing the long queues, I wondered what I could do to help as an engineer,” he said.
Iko Where is based on open-source technology, primarily the development framework Django, and its user interface is minimalist, comprising a table of rows and columns. The site collects data through a simple form.
The service has gone viral. “It really blew up; demand was so huge that I had to double the number of CPUs on the server,” Gichuho said. “We are overwhelmed by the speed at which Kenyans are sharing data.” He said at the height of the crisis in mid-April, the site had over 59,000 users, having gone live just a week earlier.
Iko Where is the latest in a line of Kenyan innovations bootstrapped in adversity, starting with the crisis-mapping tool Ushahidi, developed in the midst of election violence 15 years ago and since used worldwide to help crowdsource real-time information during natural disasters and conflicts. The M-Pesa mobile money platform was built to leapfrog the gaps in Kenya’s financial infrastructure, becoming an early pace setter for mobile financial technology and putting Kenya on the map as a hub for tech innovation. Analysts have ascribed this kind of entrepreneurship to an environment where people often have to seek private sector solutions to public sector problems, and where internet penetration and relatively light government regulation have allowed digital innovation to thrive.
Kenya’s tech ecosystem continues to attract significant investment. According to a recent report by research portal Disrupt Africa, Kenyan startups have raised $257 million in the past two years, spanning sectors as diverse as agriculture and medical imaging to rural retail and influencer management. However, it’s still a difficult ecosystem to succeed in, especially for local founders. In 2019, expat founders in Kenya got the lion’s share of the funds raised, while local founders got only a paltry 6% of the total, according to an analysis by Viktoria Ventures.
Crises can change rapidly too, leaving founders with a solution in search of a new problem. That’s exactly what happened with Iko Where. In mid-April, the government announced a new retail fixed price for petrol: 144 Kenyan shillings ($1.25) per liter, a nearly 7% increase on an already record-high price. At that higher price, the oil marketing companies immediately released their fuel stocks, and the queues dwindled, leaving the platform with a lot less utility, although shortages still linger.
But not to be deterred, creator Gichuho quickly pivoted from fuel availability to public safety, crowdsourcing information on mugging hotspots in urban centers, and has one eye on Kenya’s general election in August. He hopes that Iko Where can continue to collate useful information like this in the public interest, even after immediate crises have abated. “Now, we are testing what else we can use the tool for,” he said. “Perhaps security, or something else that could come up in this election season.”