Kenya has come to be closely associated with technology innovation and entrepreneurship, particularly in the area of mobile technology, raising the country’s profile internationally as one of the up-coming tech hubs in Sub-Saharan Africa. The country has even been dubbed the ‘Silicon Savannah’, a term that embodies the aspirations of the country to dominate technology innovation and entrepreneurship on the continent.
Much has led to today’s ‘Silicon Savannah’. Beginning roughly in 2008 when seemingly overnight the country was connected via undersea fiber optic cables to the rest of the world. SEACOM, the first such cable undertaking to make it to the shores of the country, hailed a new era for technology in Kenya. The prospect of cheap, fast and reliable internet access promised a break from a past that was riddled with high internet costs, and a leap forward in the government’s strategy to position Kenya as a Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) destination to rival the likes of India, which had built itself up as the quintessential outsourcing destination. At that time I was working for a software outsourcing firm in Kenya and the challenges of slow, costly and unreliable internet were all too familiar (see ‘The Making of a Revolution’).
Then the success of two technology innovations and their subsequent exports to other parts of the world further pushed the ‘Silicon Savannah’ narrative:
Ushahidi, the crowd-mapping platform and MPESA, the mobile money transfer service from Safaricom (Kenya’s largest Mobile Network Operator), were founded/introduced at around the same period of time. Part of Ushahidi’s effect on this history is the founding of iHub, Kenya’s first technology innovation hub (and arguably the first major success of the ‘hub model’ in Africa). The iHub acted as a nexus point around which the technology community in Kenya coalesced and eventually led to more developments, particularly igniting curiosity among foreign investors and drawing them in. MPESA on the other hand has had significant impact on the country’s economy, making money more ‘mobile’ than ever before. By some estimates the amount of money that is transferred via MPESA is equivalent to over 30% of Kenya’s GDP. This success literally birthed an entire industry. Furthermore, MPESA has become an inspiration and a basis upon which a lot of related innovations have been birthed – from bringing mobile money to online commerce (PesaPal et al) and enabling fluid business transactions via mobile money (KopoKopo et al) and many more. These two (Ushahidi and MPESA) are clearly not solely responsible for where the country is today in terms of technology innovation and entrepreneurship but are landmark points in the history of the ‘Silicon Savannah’… [Proceed to the rest of this article]