Mobile penetration is driving tech advances in Kenya, with an increasing number of innovation centres supporting tech start-ups in the ‘Silicon Savannah’.
Improved fibre optic infrastructure has seen East African internet penetration grow, with Kenya far ahead at 85 per cent of the population. The Kenyan government is determined to leverage this improved infrastructure, with technology a major part of its policy roadmap for economic sustainability, Vision 2030.
Kenya first made strides as a hotbed of innovation in software and services for mobile devices in 2007, when local telecom company Safaricom launched its M-Pesa mobile cash-transfer service. In a market short on conventional banking services but flush with basic mobile phones, by 2012 some 70 per cent of Kenya’s adult population were using M-Pesa. It was followed in the same year by the Ushahidi app, designed to track violence in Kenya’s contested presidential election. Designed to visualise information submitted via email, social media or text message on an online map, it has since been used in crisis-relief operations around the globe, including earthquake relief efforts in Chile, Haiti and Japan.
In 2010 iHub was founded in Nairobi as a tech incubator by Ushahidi’s co-founder, Kenyan-raised American Erik Hersman. The co-working space and community center for Nairobi’s technology entrepreneurs has birthed dozens of new companies and attracted funding from international investors and leading tech companies including Google, Microsoft and Nokia.
Major global tech firms such as Siemens, HP and Samsung have set up operations in Kenya, with IBM spending $100m forming an African research centre with its own supercomputer.
The new landscape is driving new innovation — and new opportunity. GSMA, the organisation representing the interests of mobile network operators worldwide, now lists 314 African tech innovation hubs operating in 93 cities across 42 countries — with half are concentrated in Kenya, South Africa, Egypt, Morocco and Nigeria. Some are mere online collaborations, others are fully serviced suburbs.
Given the reliance in Africa on mobile connection, the GSMA report says: “Mobile operators such as Vodacom, MTN and Orange have formed a number of successful collaborations with start-ups in Africa.” Orange Digital, for example, launched a €50m investment fund for African start-ups in 2017.
In addition, the British and Australian governments have partnered in an “Ecosystem Accelerator” programme to provide equity-free funding, technical assistance and mobile operator connections to tech start-ups in a number of African nations, including Kenya.
Locally, Safaricom launched a new innovation centre in Nairobi in 2017, Safaricom Alpha, which aims to identify spending patterns on mPesa and turn those insights into additional Safaricom products. Its first product, the Bonga social networking platform, rolled out in May 2018.
Meanwhile, the Kenyan government has breathed new life into plans for a new tech hub called Konza, with the Treasury reinstating funds to the project in the review of the 2018/2019 budget. Plans for the 2,000-hectare ‘Konza City Technopolis’ outside Nairobi were launched in 2013, with private investment sought for the development of a tech hub of office parks for science and technology firms, a university, retail outlets and residential facilities. However, the multi-billion dollar development is currently stalled, with investors lined up in the initial stages going silent on their stake in the Vision 2030 project.
(via BusinessLive, Selamta, Standard Media, TechCrunch)