Musings on the ‘Silicon Savannah’: Past, Present & Future – Afrinnovator

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’.

The government through its Ministry of Information and in particular the ICT Board of Kenya has also been busy in this short history. The board has initiated several initiatives to promote ICTs and technology innovation and entrepreneurship in Kenya. In fact, the ministry pushed for undersea fiber connectivity in the first place. Some of their other initiatives have been lackluster or have failed to live up to their promises. Most notable in the recent past would be the Konza Technopolis initiative, the ambitious plan to create an entire city from scratch as a hub for technology (amongst other things).

That brief history is to bring us to the present, and give some context through which we can peer into the future of the ‘Silicon Savannah’.

There has recently been a lot of criticism (constructive and otherwise) at the ‘Silicon Savannah’. It has even been posited that the name does not reflect the reality – we don’t produce silicon chips in the first place, perhaps ‘Digital Savannah’ fits better, some have argued? The conversation has been around whether there is, in reality, more hype than real developments (a panel discussion held at iHub was themed: ‘Silicon Savannah: Hype or Reality’). Critics have pointed to there being more pitch contests, hackathons and other such competitions than one can shake a stick at that award prize money and do little other than promote the development of ‘cool apps’ and not real businesses.  Defenders point to a lack of capital for startups, while on the other hand investors claim a lack of viable ventures worth investing in. And so on.

Is any of this warranted? Perhaps.

The key thing to note is that there’s a very short history behind the so-called ‘Silicon Savannah’. Taking a long view of the situation can help give some perspective. 5 years is a short period in light of the time it took, for example, Silicon Valley to get to where it is today. In fact, Silicon Valley, which the ‘Silicon Savannah’ (at least going by the name) is aiming to model itself into, has a complex history that stretches more than five decades back. Catch-up theory does indeed suggest that it would take a much shorter time at present to make the leap forward. However, it is probably unrealistic that 5 years can make up for 50.

The main issue is more likely one of mismatched expectations. Could the ‘Silicon Savannah’ just be learning to crawl and yet there are expectations that she should be running? I think so. Much as 5 years ago the government had an idea of aiming to create a vibrant BPO industry (I don’t know how well we’re doing in that area), much happened organically, so to speak (Who would have predicted the iHub in 2008 and all the other hubs that have sprang up since?). And perhaps, 5 years is just enough time to look at the situation again and see where we are. It’s only natural (and even healthy) that all these questions are being raised at this point in the extended history of the ‘Silicon Savannah’, after all we’re used to 5-year strategic plans, only there seems to not have been a formal strategic plan on which everyone agreed upon and upon which we could measure progress. Could be that the government had one, but that would likely not reflect the ‘community’ at large (including innovators, entrepreneurs and investors).

So where to now?

It’s not sensible to write-off the ‘Silicon Savannah’ altogether, just as it is not (using the earlier analogy) to write-off your child just because they’re not running around yet at 11 months of age.

The government, through the ICT Board of Kenya, recently unveiled its National ICT Masterplan 2012-2017. The plan sets out a 5-year (how appropriate) vision (“Kenya becomes Africa’s most respected knowledge economy” – I bet that phrase or similar can be found in many other such plans in many other African countries), goals and  a strategic direction to get there.

Back in 2008 the government had a strategy and a plan to position Kenya as a BPO center. Back then the tech community was also very fragmented and there was little interest in the ‘Silicon Savannah’ (take the current attention we’re enjoying in the international media as an example). As such, the ‘organic’ developments of the past 5 years as a result of the tech community coalescing, and the increased interest in the area that probably could not have been totally anticipated (at least in scale) had a major impact on how things progressed. It’s not so much that the tech community (meaning all stakeholders – innovators, entrepreneurs, investors) was ignored, as it was not in a position to be significantly involved in intentionally shaping its future.

Today the government has come up with another strategy and another plan. However, there’s also a vibrant tech community that can and should also determine its future. If the Silicon Savannah wants to grow fast and deliver on its promise, it has to be an intentional (and shared) progression. And in 5-years’ time questions and criticisms can be raised, but at least against a standard of expectation.