Interview: How Kenya plans to become Africa’s ICT hub by 2017

The Kenyan government today launched a National ICT Master Plan ‘Connected Kenya 2017’, a plan that seeks to spur the development of 500 tier-one technology companies, the creation of 20 global innovations and 50,000 new jobs by the year 2017. Kenya also wants to become Africa’s ICT hub and have a robust industry that will generate US$2 billion dollars annually, up from the $860 million IT spending recorded in 2011. How we made it in Africa’s Dinfin Mulupi caught up with Paul Kukubo, CEO of the Kenya ICT Board, a government agency in charge of positioning Kenya as an ICT destination, to find out how feasible Kenya’s ambitions are. Below are excerpts.

Paul Kukubo is the CEO of Kenya's ICT Board.

Paul Kukubo is the CEO of Kenya’s ICT Board.

Share with us some of the highlights of the National ICT Master Plan.

The plan has at its core vision that by 2017, Kenya becomes Africa’s most globally respected knowledge economy. Knowledge seems to be a central thing of this plan because the true value of ICT is knowledge. The plan is anchored on the Vision 2030. It has four strategic goals: that every citizen is connected; that Kenya becomes Africa’s ICT hub; that public services are available to all through ICT; and that Kenya will have a knowledge-based economy.

One of the goals is Kenya becoming Africa’s ICT hub. How do you intend to get there?

We are getting there. One of the key things is the Konza Technology City (a planned high-tech hub inspired by Silicon Valley), making sure we provide the facilities investors need as they come in. Number two is education. We need to continue strengthening education in ICT so that people can come here to find talent. Marketing and brand awareness is also important. We must continue to play the song of Kenya. Recently, MoDe – a Kenyan startup that offers nano-credit for pre-paid mobile phone users – received the IBM Global Entrepreneur of the Year award. We are winning so many international awards that it’s almost becoming a culture and this helps strengthen our brand. We also need to continue supporting the ICT ecosystem through incubation, grants and loans to IT entrepreneurs and providing access for local companies to public sector work.

Speaking about Konza City, is the project achievable?

It will be achieved. The master planning has been done very well.

This is a multi-billion dollar project and a lot of money will go into construction. There are people who feel you could still build Silicon Savannah in Nairobi’s Kibera slums by just supporting developers. Do we really need fancy buildings?

That is just a way of thinking. That is how you entrench what we call the third world mentality. How long are we going to think that Kibera is normal? We need to go to Abu Dhabi, South Africa and Singapore to realise that it is not normal. People shouldn’t live like that. Part of getting Kenya to the next stage is to start setting standards and aspirations of people. Konza is already unlocking so many opportunities in the private sector. It is creating linkages with the financial sector, construction sector, health sector, education sector and with development partners. Institutions that serve the middle class and the poor should actually be built to the best and highest standards, not the other way round.

The success of Konza City is heavily dependent on foreign investors. Could Kenyans end up being just spectators?

There is a fear of that happening. The foreign investment will be good for the economy though, that is for sure. You can never have too many foreign investors. When a country reaches that level, it is doing extremely well, look at Singapore, Australia and Dubai. It is a good thing. But it doesn’t mean that local companies should be marginalised. There are vehicles being used to enable Kenyan participation such as the real estate investment trusts (REITs). There will be Kenyan participation in real estate development, capacity development and actual technology companies that will move to Konza. So we will have Kenyan participation across the board. Kenyans need to realise that the project itself is demanding of us to take up our place. We have Kenyans in the diaspora who can come in and they are showing a lot of interest.