This is an interesting time to be in Africa. It’s a bit like the post-big bang period. It’s not very clear what the end result will be a few years or even decades from now in terms of African technology entrepreneurship/innovation. For example, in East Africa, while yes, we are now ‘connected’ (thanks to SEACOM and the rest)… there’s this atmosphere of uncertainty hanging in the air.
There were (and still are) grand hopes of super growth in technology based enterprise in Kenya by virtue of this; this is not wrong; I think the only wrong thing is that it was assumed this would happen overnight!
Clearly this is not the case. Right now, in Kenya and I think by extension the rest of the region (in my opinion), there’s some kind of ‘settling down‘ going on. The models that will work are not yet clear, the people who will make it happen are just starting to come up, the regions where there will be strongest growth are not completely evident.
When you ask people what their aspirations are for tech in this part of the world, their minds almost automatically go out to Silicon Valley and the grandness of the Valley. The amazing thing is that we tend to look at successes once they are successes. And all too often we fall into the temptation of thinking that successes come overnight. That’s why everyone wants to know what was the magic moment that made Google, or Facebook, or whatever other mega company there was out there. All this while in reality, there was no magic moment, there could have been a defining moment in which a decision was made or the right convergence of factors propelled something forward but you can’t look at this in isolation. Otherwise you lose the real story… and most importantly the real lessons. This also means that you can’t really replicate what it took to create one success directly onto another situation to make it a success – you can learn, and borrow principles, from one to the other; but it is virtually impossible to make a Kenyan ‘Silicon Valley’ because for example, there’s no world war being fought (and apparently as I came to learn in my research of what it took to create the Valley, WWII was a major influencing factor) – furthermore, you don’t have the same people, with the same life histories etc etc etc
Similarly, every ‘technology cluster’, Silicon Valley, included has a long history, with influencers, and influencing circumstances and events that made it what it is today – a hot bed of innovation and deep startup culture.
So are we lost? Must we in Africa, scratch out our own path to this ‘success’? Are we doomed? Well, not really. As I mentioned you can’t replicate the pattern to get the same results, but you can definitely apply the right principles and get your own success.
So, what principles can we learn from the Valley? (there are others but this is probably the most prominent at least in this context). To answer this question, it would be necessary to go back to the beginning and figure out what sparked and developed and eventually gave us what we have to day in the Valley.
Paul Graham (the guy behind that awesome thing called y-combinator) has several interesting essays that also help answer this question.
One of them titled Can you buy SiliconValley? Maybe. Asks the exact question:
A lot of cities look at Silicon Valley and ask “How could we make something like that happen here?” The organicway to do it is to establish a first-rate university in a place where rich people want to live. That’s how Silicon Valley happened. But could you shortcut the process by funding startups?
And he answers:
Possibly. Let’s consider what it would take.
In a separate article he gives several things that make The Valley what it is. And he has some good points.
So what’s the conclusion of our little inquisition? – Well, for one, the idea of the Valley that most of us had was pretty much incorrect. Secondly, it is impossible to replicate it (anyone want to start a world war?). But (thirdly) we can learn from, and apply certain principles that work regardless of location and circumstances to make our own successful technology clusters all over Africa.
So stop trying to be like Silicon Valley!