Earlier this week, the Kenya ICT board released some interesting statistics in the Julisha Report on the Kenya ICT ecosystem. I love these sorts of reports and I believe they are crucial for both domestic and foreigners to understand where to focus to improving the ICT industry and where investments need to be made.
From a comparison and benchmarking point of view- it is clear Kenya is a leader in technology adoption in Africa especially for its size compared to other countries on the continent. It also uniquely positions itself to serve the East African population of some 120-200M depending on which other countries are included nearby. Many foreign firms will choose Kenya for its base across the region.
Future is all mobile:
This is the least surprising fact, the story in Africa is all mobile. Whilst measuring traditional PC usage is important, especially for the business segment, I believe for the African consumer, mobile is by far the most exciting story, especially when you factor in the cost of PCs vs plummeting costs of smartphones and tablets- the magic price point is sub $100 and I believe tablets and smartphones will continue to come in a that level if they are to sell in any significant volume to African consumers. Hence, the next generation of African consumers will likely leapfrog straight to tablet even after owning a simple internet enabled mobile device or of course a smartphone. There are even tablets being manufactured in Nigeria. What does this mean? Developers should be investing in learning mobile technologies if they want to address the african consumer market- this means platforms such as Android, mobileweb, HTML5 and Nokia/Windows Phone are crucial, as well as the technologies behind mobile banking should they want to better monetize and expand into non traditional ICT areas such as health care, retail, entertainment. In short, we need more mobile training/incubators like the mLab.
Social networking is huge:
This trend is everywhere, not only unique in Africa, but according to the numbers and how you interpret them at-least 10-25% of internet users in Kenya are on facebook- you can cross reference the no.s to get up to date data from SocialBakers on Africa. Social networking is hence a technology that knows no boundaries and its effect (negative and positive) will impact Africa in many ways.
There is a clear thirst for Africans to stay connected with friends and family. As such, this bodes well for any social media or social enabled applications, from news, media/entertainment to advertising. It also means that Governments who continually try suppress information at the anger of citizens will face huge risks and we may see revolts similar to Arab Spring.
Talent is concentrated in IT support
Now that we’ve left the demand side, lets focus on the supply- the talent. It is not surprising how much talent is in the ICT support sector- I am guessing many are supporting banking and mobile operators mainly because these jobs are stable paying ones- it may also be that universities/colleges are feeding them the human resources in these sort of skills. This also aligns with the fact that a majority of the industry is still in hardware, communications and business segments (software reselling)- a good thing for laying down important infrastructure, not only in Kenya but across the region that Kenya supports.
What does this mean for startups? The problem with this is that it may lock up talented computer professionals in technologies totally reliant on their job. I know this well from my Microsoft days. In a rapidly changing technology world, it’s not only important that one understands how to do your current job/technology well but also be exposed to new ones, particularly in open source and cloud computing and mobile development technologies that may not have originated from the enterprise segment or the 10 year old technology used by your bank. The longer one is in this job, the more outdated you will be when you leave and you realize the broader computing world has moved on. The correct phrase here is “watch out for the consumerization of IT“.
One thing I’d like to have seen in the report is whether ICT employers in Kenya are actually investing in training and if so, what areas? If not all, which I suspect, then my point becomes even more valid about the risk of lockin on outdated ICT skills. Do you know how to use the Facebook API? How about HTML5 and android development? It is unlikely that a computer support professional even knows these technologies if not being trained unless they are dabbling on it on the side (if this is you- good for you! You are investing in your future). One thing to watch out for- as cloud computing gets more and more adopted, it will kill traditional ICT support jobs for maintaining decentralized data centers and servers in organizations as it all becomes more centralized and consolidated- this is a worldwide phenomenon for enterprises and governments wanting more ICT efficiency and cost savings.
Skills gap and focus on education and training
The conclusion by many is that a skills gap is emerging given both the trends and the current supply of talent locked up in traditional ICT industries. What makes Silicon Valley what it is, is the continuous learning that occurs among the talent that moves into new jobs and new technologies. When I read “project management”, I just read “management” and the ability to use skills beyond the technical to add value to the industry. Clearly if 10-20% of the current ICT professional population went down this path it would help expand the industry. Also making it easier for foreigners to bring in skills from outside and we are clearly seeing this with the increasing no. of foreign or diaspora talent flocking home in numerous startups to support the growth opportunities in Africa.
One final point for Government officials and International Development professionals reading this- you may want to allocate more of that lavish tech park money to skills development- it will build valuable human capital to support the industry and hence economic growth. Also any policies that lower the price point of internet enabled consumer mobile devices cheaper than $100 will continue to increase the consumer demand side as Africans grow their spending and enter the middle class.