Kenya’s Silicon Savannah is the darling of development agencies and one of the prime go-to examples for business and entrepreneurs around the globe. In Kenya’s Silicon Savannah one can pick and choose cases that demonstrate just how countries can leapfrog technological stages and catapult themselves into the ranks of techie superpower stardom. Yet are the glitz and accolades really in order? And do Kenya’s efforts to reproduce a Kenyan Silicon Valley on the savannah by building tech cities and innovation hubs stand a chance of succeeding? Or are they simply white elephant projects of venture capitalists and government development agencies? To answer these questions this article takes a comparative approach and explores the building blocks of California’s Silicon Valley. It also identifies and analyses what Kenya and Kenyans have done right to achieve a nascent Silicon Savannah in East Africa and what impediments exist to achieving this vision.
Silicon Valley: Key Ingredients
According to a 2013 article published in Slate, Silicon Valley’s development had just as much to do with chance and timing as actual policies and vision. But the author also cautiously identified four factors that may have played a key role: one, access to easy research money; two, access to easy start-up money; three, mobility of the entrepreneurial workforce; and four, patience by government, business and people for results. Yet even if these key ingredients can be reproduced in a place like Kenya, the author cautioned that Silicon Valley also came about as result of trends that stretch back over 100 years.
Doing things right
Given these findings, what if anything does Kenya’s nascent Silicon Savannah have in common with California’s Silicon Valley? For starters, good things have already happened in Kenya. M-Pesa, Ushahidi, M-Kopa and BRCK are such famous Kenyan innovations that they require no introduction here. And they are not just renowned and used in Kenya, they are truly innovative technologies and platforms that can be used globally. The reason this is possible is because these technologies and products provide what are increasingly viewed as “basic human rights”. These include access to banking, electricity/light, communication (phone, internet), and water – commodities that previously were the purview of governments – governments that often failed in their duty to fulfil these basic needs. In other words, M-Pesa, M-Kopa and other start-up innovations have filled key gaps in the provision of services. These gaps are still legion in Kenya and thus potentially vast opportunity spaces exist for entrepreneurial Kenyans. This is also good news for the development of a viable Silicon Savannah.
These “successful because they are useful and affordable” innovations, in turn, have brought all the right kinds of PR to Kenya and Kenyan entrepreneurs. This has netted investment and access to money for connected and not-so-connected entrepreneurs with bright ideas. It has also resulted in the opening of multiple technology/entrepreneur hubs – most of them located just off Ngong Road – that groom and reportedly provide much-needed resources to nascent talent and ideas. As such, Kenya’s Silicon Savannah seems to have achieved at least one of the ingredients behind Silicon Valley’s success: access to start-up money. Additionally, the Kenyan workforce could be characterized as generally mobile with Kenyan entrepreneurs likely willing to bounce between ventures depending on circumstances. However, the guarantee of good salaries and benefits moving with entrepreneurs and techies is by no means assured. And this along with other factors indicate that all is not rosy on the Silicon Savannah.
To begin with, there seems to be a distinct lag or gap between ideas, the availability of funding and actual products. This is by no means unique to Kenya but what appears to be happening is that entrepreneurs who have already “made it” are the same bunch with access to funding streams. Again, this is not just a Silicon Savannah phenomenon, but when the same brains behind M-Pesa – who also happen to be non-Kenyans – are able to attract funding from the likes of Richard Branson and Al Gore for M-Kopa it demonstrates how the cards are generally stacked against a budding entrepreneur in Nakuru or Nyamira, let alone a Kenyan without connections in Nairobi. This is by no means a dig at outside entrepreneurs performing big feats on Kenya. In the case of M-Kopa, and according to reports of its success, it is hard to argue with the results. Yet it does lead to the question: how are Kenyan entrepreneurs supposed to compete and reproduce such results (and successes) on the Silicon Savannah?
This leads to a second impediment in the growth of a viable, world-beating Silicon Savannah: outside intervention. It’s difficult if not impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff here, suffice to say that successes like BRCK and Ushahidi have caught the attention of carrion NGOs and aid organizations. This means an influx of cash and Westerners hoping to hitch their star to the latest gadget or app. Yet the cash generally ends up staying in the hands of non-Kenyans – and generally little expertise or entrepreneurial spirit comes with them. This potentially leads to another impediment. The presence of cash, expats, glowing headlines and “capacity building” conferences at embassies, safari lodges and hotels may result in governmental and political interest among Kenya’s ruling elite – both the opposition and the ruling party.
This is not necessarily a bad thing as government support and financial largesse in the form of research funding represents one of the key ingredients in Silicon Valley’s string of successes. Indeed, one of the reasons Kenya’s own Silicon Savannah remains ephemeral is precisely because of the lack of consistent government support beyond lip service and memoranda. In other words, government needs to play a positive, long-term and consistent role in nurturing Kenya’s proven talent. Sadly, what is more likely when politicians turn their eyes to Kenya’s nascent tech boom is that incidents of negative meddling will arise as potentially lucrative projects, developments and businesses are swallowed up or smothered at birth – particularly if they are Kenyan-developed, owned and operated. If history is anything to go by, the Kenyan government – regardless of party – and most politicians unfortunately tend to behave like NGOs and other “well-meaning” individuals and organizations: they impede development at best, and destroy it at worst.
“White elephant” on the savannah
Thirdly and relatedly, big picture projects like Konza Technological City may become the rule rather than the exception. Konza Tech City has been characterized as the centre of “Africa’s Silicon Savannah” and will reportedly host Kenya’s IT hub as well as business process outsourcing (BPO) ventures, shopping malls, hotels, international schools, a science park, a convention centre and a health facility project and cost an estimated KES 14.5 billion to 1.2 trillion. This may sound good but it is absolutely unnecessary for a country that has burnished its IT hub credentials without any such nonsense. Konza Tech City sadly represents much of what is wrong with the many development models practiced in Kenya (and Africa) with minor tweaks since independence. It is the intersection of do-good aid work, capacity-building lip service, endless conferences and roundtable sessions, outside consulting, venture capital, and government greed. The prospect of yet another World Bank-guided project with lots of goodies and construction projects to effectively launder money means lots of smoke and little fire. Kenyan techies and entrepreneurs have already signalled they will stay away and development groups and venture capital are already fighting over the scraps of a project destined to pay big dividends for developers (US firm, Tetra Tech won a KES 2.1 billion contract to oversee planning and construction of Konza) but offer little to Kenyans not already imbued with power and wealth.
In a recent article on Kenya’s IT sector, Marlen de la Chaux and Angela Okune, a US-Kenyan pioneer of digital innovation research in Kenya noted precisely the reasons why countless small ventures in Kenya – let alone massive ventures like Konza Tech City – are almost certainly doomed. In identifying the reasons for failure, they eschewed textbook development approaches that attempt to define, measure, and fill gaps associated with funding, skill training, and market readiness. The authors did so because they discovered that the definitions of these gaps among key actors – governments, NGOs, aid organizations such as DfID and JICA as well as Hubs and businesses – differed to such a degree that their proffered solutions were at cross purposes with one another. In other words their efforts – no matter how well-meaning – cancelled each other out. This led the authors to argue that “… it is important to resolve the contradictory, divergent, and misaligned perspectives among the key actors” prior to seeing any ground-breaking developments. Alternatively, I would argue that the departure of most of these actors from Kenya’s nascent Silicon Savannah may be a neutral development at worst; at best a blessing to Kenya’s IT entrepreneurs.
Trust, money and innovation
Finally, and not surprising given the nexus of development money, political interest and big capital, a lack of trust and an insidious culture of corruption are likely the biggest impediments to Kenya’s future as an IT hub. In a study conducted by German tech researcher Johannes Ulrich Bramann on Kenya’s digital start-up space, the country’s start-ups were found to suffer challenges typical to other entrepreneurs. However, growth was stymied because of a dearth of experience among wary and traditional investors. “First, the local context seemed to be characterised by institutionalised low trust. Respondents [of Braman’s survey] mentioned a strong fear of being defrauded by business partners, because of little trust in other people’s integrity, in the enforcement of contracts, and in weak national legal institutions.” This institutionalised low-trust environment is said to discourage the decision to start-up ventures, invest capital in such ventures, and take the time and effort needed to see innovations come to fruition.
Braman, de la Chaux and Okune represent just three of the scholars exploring the phenomenon of Silicon Savannah. This is good news. It further enforces the notion that at least some of the building blocks of Kenya’s Silicon Valley are in place. In other words, Kenya’s technological leapfrogging phenomenon is more than just a flash in the pan. This is bigger than a few apps, products or mobile platforms. Nairobi’s cosmopolitan mix, its strategic location, and the uniquely Kenyan trait of filling gaps and addressing needs on their own terms and in novel ways may pave the way for multiple, viable technological leaps. This is not just another “rising Africa” story and the hope is that with enough alignments of start-up money, mobility and great ideas coupled with an absence of state and development agency oversight Kenya’s Silicon Savannah will grow into an institution akin to the original Silicon Savannah. The deck may be stacked against it, but just tell that to any entrepreneur and innovator. What is the use if there is no challenge and no need?