Searching for Silicon Savannah

Last week I visited Nairobi, my first time back in Kenya since Nairobi’s nickname ‘Silicon Savannah’ was coined.[hidepost=9]ihub235x140[/hidepost]

Much has been written about Kenya’s emergence as Africa’s technology hub. Budding entrepreneurs have developed software and apps to solve numerous problems. For example, Kopo Kopo is a platform that allows SMEs to accept mobile payments; SafariDesk is an online vacation planning service; while eLimu produces tablets for primary school students. All these startups are based in Nairobi. The Kenyan government is also planning to build a new tech city outside the capital, called Konza City, which it hopes will attract major IT companies.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly how Kenya’s emergence as a technology hub started, but it is safe to say that the success of mobile payment platform M-Pesa played a large role in showing the public the potential of the mobile phone.

The launch of the iHub, a co-working space for tech entrepreneurs, located off Nairobi’s Ngong Road, was also instrumental in stimulating interest in technology and attracting international companies such as Nokia, Samsung and Google. In fact, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, recently visited Nairobi and described the city as “a serious tech hub [that] may become the African leader”.

Over the past years the media had a blast reporting on the rise of Kenya’s tech industry. Journalists could be blamed for painting a glorified picture of Nairobi’s startup scene. Even the February issue of the Ethiopian Airlines (my transport to Nairobi) in-flight magazine had an article about the topic.

Recently Kenya’s tech entrepreneurs have come under some criticism for relying too much on grant funding and competition prize money, and not building profitable businesses that can stand on their own feet. Some have also suggested that the Kenyan market is too small and that most people don’t have money to spend on apps or tech-based products and services.

What does a tech hub look like?

Although the purpose of my Nairobi visit was not to examine the tech scene, I was eager to visit the iHub of which I had read so much about.

I was told that these days not anyone can just walk into the iHub. My plan of action was to set up an interview with Mbwana Alliy – founder of the Savannah Fund, an Africa focused technology venture capital fund – who according to my sources works from the iHub. That way I could check out the facilities, while also learning more from a man who is on the frontline of East Africa’s tech industry. I, however, didn’t manage to secure the interview.

Nairobi's iHub, a co-working space for tech entrepreneurs, has played an important role in promoting the city's startup scene.

Nairobi’s iHub, a co-working space for tech entrepreneurs, has played an important role in promoting the city’s startup scene. Source: iHub Facebook page

While in Nairobi I also attended the Mobile Web East Africa conference. Here I met many of Silicon Savannah’s budding entrepreneurs – from Blackberry app developers to upcoming tech bloggers. The conference certainly confirmed that Kenya has a vibrant tech scene. However, I was more interested in how technology has infiltrated the lives of everyday Kenyans.

When it comes to general internet infrastructure, Nairobi seems to be pretty well connected. The wi-fi connection at my crummy hotel off Langata Road was very good, definitely of a much better quality than the room itself, or indeed the breakfast. While in Kenya I also used mobile operator Safaricom’s data services to connect to the internet. At first it didn’t work and I must have called the customer care number over 50 times, without ever getting through to an operator. However, when I vented my frustrations on Safaricom’s Facebook page, my query was answered within 10 minutes.

From all the media reports I, however, expected something more from Africa’s tech hub – although I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking for. What are the characteristics of a tech hub? Is it people sitting in a park doing things on their iPads? Or shiny buildings owned by software companies? Or a nightclub with young tech millionaires downing bottles of Cristal? I’m not sure. Besides the use of mobile money solutions, which is ubiquitous, I struggled to see any other concrete signs that technology plays a significantly larger role in the lives of Kenyans, compared to other countries on the continent.

Election worries

However, one thing that I didn’t have to ‘look out’ for is the drama surrounding Monday’s upcoming elections. Every third billboard lining Nairobi’s roads was elections related. There was barely a tree that didn’t have at least one campaign flyer stuck to it. The election dominated television, newspapers and Twitter. It is by far the topic that popped up most in all the conversations I had.

The last time Kenyans went to the voting booths things didn’t turn out well. More than 1,200 people were killed in inter-tribal fighting and thousands were displaced. Front-runners – prime minister Raila Odinga and former finance minister Uhuru Kenyatta – are neck-and-neck in the polls. Although most of the Kenyans I spoke to are hoping for peace, few think that this will actually happen. Most hope that the clashes will be contained in certain areas and not spread across the country. Many people are apparently leaving Nairobi for the next week. There was a nervousness hanging over the capital.

These days Kenya is viewed as one of Africa’s most lucrative investment destinations. American multinational General Electric, for example, chose Nairobi as the location for its African head office. However, if the elections lead to widespread violence, it can erase the progress of the past few years.

***

On the last day of my trip I finally got to visit the iHub, together with one of How we made it in Africa’s contributors who lives in Nairobi. As we walked into the lift he made a joke saying that if someone bombs this building, it will basically wipe out Kenya’s entire media-hyped startup tech scene. In addition to the iHub, the Bishop Magua Centre also houses business training and incubation organisations m:lab and Nailab, as well as some of the more successful tech companies that have progressed to their own offices.

The iHub looked exactly like it did on the numerous photos I’ve seen. I was amazed at the large number of people in the room, considering that it was late on a Saturday afternoon. Quite a number of the techies I met at the conference earlier in the week were also there, working away on their laptops, or maybe just checking their Facebook.

Did the Nairobi I experienced live up to its tech hub image created in the media? Probably not, but that doesn’t take anything away from what some of these entrepreneurs are doing. I’m sure this relatively young industry will over time evolve into something robust.

But for now Kenya has bigger things to worry about. Let’s hope that everything goes well with the elections, then we can go back to discussing comparatively trivial issues such as Silicon Savannah.

Jaco Maritz is the publisher and editor-in-chief of How we made it in Africa