If there is such a thing as an African version of California’s Silicon Valley then the country that is arguably leading the race to the future is Kenya.
Household technology names such as Google, Intel, Microsoft, Nokia and Vodafone all have a presence here and IBM recently chose Nairobi for its first African research laboratory.
Kenyans enjoy faster broadband connections than their counterparts in Africa’s economic powerhouse, South Africa and the government plans to build a US$7 billion, 2,000 hectare technology city that is already being branded Africa’s “Silicon Savannah.”
How did Kenya — a nation that still has its share of poverty and ethnic conflict — get here?
“It started as a joke,” said permanent secretary at the information and communications ministry, Bitange Ndemo. “We said we wanted to beat South Africa — and we did it.”
For years, 52-year-old Ndemo, a workaholic whose typical day runs from 5.30am to 11pm, found himself bogged down in talks with other African countries about linking to an undersea fibre optic cable that would bring high-speed Internet access to millions of people.
“I did a calculation: We were spending more on hotel rooms discussing it than laying the cable,” he said.
“So we broke away and went it alone. South Africa thought we were joking. We didn’t know anything about cables; I stayed up overnight reading about it on the Internet,” he said.
That was in 2007 and two years later Kenya landed the cable in record time.
Since then the country has gone from fewer than 6,000 broadband connections to 6 million, and from fewer than 3 million Internet users to 18 million.
In Ndemo’s grand vision, technology is not an optional luxury but is central to 21st century education, development, economic growth and ending Africa’s reliance on foreign aid. He has ambitions for “e-learning” in schools across Kenya.
“After the cable landed, we gave unlimited capacity to all the universities,” he said.
“Access enables us to become more innovative. Broadband allows people to build things you never thought of. Four or five years ago you could not put the words ‘Kenya,’ ‘innovation’ and ‘research’ in the same sentence. Now it is starting to happen,” Ndemo said.
Ndemo, who holds a PhD in industrial economics from Sheffield University, also has a dream of online government. He claims that Kenya is the first country in Africa to widely adopt open-source data, allowing researchers to study everything from health records to weather patterns. He wants census information to be updated in real-time instead of once a decade.
“We are trying to have real-time digital villages. I believe that 80 percent of Africa’s problems can be resolved through open data,” he said.
Ndemo’s attempt to reduce inefficiency and corruption has made him enemies.
“People benefit from chaos and they can fight you very badly,” he said. “Sometimes they tell us, ‘Get out of here or we’ll kill you.’ I remember when we said we’d liberalize the sector, someone said: ‘You won’t come out alive.’ However, it was the best liberalization ever.”
The government has sought to avoid the over-regulation that has hindered tech entrepreneurs in many other countries. The tech workforce also benefits from relatively strong schools and universities.
There is a buzz and sense of possibility here. Kenya has an estimated four million Facebook and three million Twitter users. In just a few years mobile phone penetration has grown from less than 20 percent to 85 percent, driven by cheap tariffs and services such as M-Pesa, which enables users to pay for goods by transferring money between mobile phones. About 17 million Kenyans, more than a third of the population, use M-Pesa and it is taking off around the world.