New Yorker talks about running a tech startup in Nairobi

Nelson explains that while this is not a big problem for him today, as the company grows and more talent is needed “I don’t think the government is going to support me in having a team that is half international.”

According to Nelson, the number of people from Europe, South Africa and West Africa who have skills that are appropriate to his business far outweighs the number of people in Kenya.

“While I would like to be headquartered here, I don’t know if it’s going to be possible,” says Nelson. “I want to maximise profits and bring in the highest value to my shareholders. While I am very happy to give jobs to Kenyans who live here – and I think if the company grows there will be more and more jobs for Kenyans – if government restrictions are such that I can’t maximise profit for the shareholders, I will move.”

He argues that the government should adopt a long-term strategy by allowing international talent to come in, train and build the capacity of locals.

“There are people in China, there are people in India who know stuff… I think that the pool of software developers in Nairobi is probably only 1,000 people. That is just not enough. You need 10,000 people, you need 50,000 and you can’t get that just right now. You need to bring people in.”

Nonetheless, Nelson believes that Kenya has real potential in the industry judging from the “impetus and momentum behind technology [development] for the entire continent being centred” in Nairobi.

What was it like moving from New York to work in Kenya?

Nelson explains that Nairobi’s transportation system was “one of the biggest frustrations”. New York, he says, has a safe mass transportation system that is pedestrian and bike friendly.

“One of the things that most expats notice very quickly when they get here is that they are basically forced either into a car culture or taxi culture or a matatu (Kenyan public transport vehicle) culture but the matatus aren’t very generous to foreigners,” he says. “I have never been to a city that is [this] poorly planned from a mass transportation point of view. It’s the worst I have ever seen.”

Crime and insecurity is also a concern although he adds that terrorism is a risk understood by the expat community because they have seen major attacks in other parts of the world such as the September 11 2001 attack in New York.

“I don’t have any feelings the government could have somehow stopped [the] Westgate [attack] from happening, but the incompetence shown afterwards is glaring to the expat community.”

Despite these shortcomings, Nelson says he chooses to focus on the now. He believes there is opportunity for Kili in neighbouring countries such as Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan whose fibre optic connectivity goes through Kenya before it joins the international submarine cable network.

Eventually, he hopes to scale to the whole of Africa.

“The goal is to do continent wide deployment… so that organisations which are thinking pan-African like the large banks… can leverage a continental platform.”