Kenya building a digital future in Africa’s silicon savannah

By David Smith  /  The Guardian, NAIROBI

Sun, Nov 04, 2012 - Page 9

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.

The current nerve center for Nairobi’s tech community is the “iHub,” which brings together entrepreneurs, hackers, designers and investors. It has generated 45 start-up companies since it was founded two years ago. Smart but not luxurious, on a typical day rows of young programmers sit on bright yellow chairs tapping away at laptops.

The iHub was founded by Erik Hersman, an American raised in Kenya and Sudan who blogs under the name “White African.” Initial funding came from the success of Ushahidi, a website initially developed to map reports of post-election violence in Kenya and which has become a platform for “crowdsourcing” and visualizing data used in 156 countries.

“Ushahidi and M-Pesa both prove something,” Hersman said. “If you build it in Africa, it will work anywhere. There’s a whole strata around that world that needs products that won’t be built in Europe.”

The iHub has been visited by industry luminaries such as Marissa Mayer, the president of Yahoo, and Stephen Elop, the chief executive of Nokia.

“People from the US or Europe come to Africa because they think there’s more upside. It’s the last blue ocean for tech. It’s untouched still,” Hersman, 36, said.

“People here have more spending power now than 10 years ago. At the same time everything related to tech is decreasing costs. You have a great opportunity where people say, ‘I can get in while it’s still nascent.’ It’s still raw here. It’s good to get market share before the big dogs come in,” he said.

One of the mobile apps operating from the iHub is M-Farm, which allows farmers to get wholesale market information and sell their products via basic mobile phones.

Linda Kwamboka, 24, one of three female co-founders, said: “It was August 2010 and we saw so many farmers complaining about unfair commodity prices, saying: ‘We’re not getting the benefit of our sweat.’”

M-Farm is now updated daily by data collectors on the ground and has been used by more than 5,400 farmers.

“Technology is driving so many things,” Kwamboka said. “Entrepreneurs are coming up and there’s an opportunity to change people’s lives.”