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Reverse engineering the silicon savannah

We often hear Nairobi described as the Silicon Savannah – the Silicon Valley  in  the  Rift Valley. Silicon Valley, the place that brought us Google, UBER and  countless other innovations, has created a unique and dynamic entrepreneurial ecosystem that is appreciated the world over. Across continents, we see cities trying to replicate the Silicon ecosystem, to create a place where ideas and technology come to life; creating solutions people don’t know they need, for problems they often struggle to articulate.

In Nairobi, we have seen a surge over the last decade in connectivity, mobile technology, innovation, and start-up culture. But does Nairobi, and Kenya at large, make the cut? Is this a robust silicon ecosystem? Or are we all getting high on our own supply?

What does it take?

In 2015, while ‘Africa Rising’ was still at its peak, Bloomberg pub- lished an article that said “Nairobi, Kenya has become the tech hub of Africa, a niche that could be worth more than one billion dollars to the country in the next three years,” but pointed out that the country still suffered a 40% unemployment rate.

This is the crux of the matter. The endgame here is to have a func- tional and robust silicon ecosystem. In order for this to work, and in order for Kenya’s start-ups to com- pete at an international level, there are massive changes that need to take place.

We need to develop a full ecosys- tem, and to do so it is critical that the infrastructure for sustainable innovation is developed. In 2015, Ory Okolloh, one of the founders of Ushahidi –- a service that is essen- tially the poster child for the Silicon Savannah – grappled with the lack of infrastructure and how it affects innovation. “We  can’t  entrepreneur our way around bad leadership. We can’t entrepreneur our way around bad policies,” she said,

The entrepreneur in Kenya faces a myriad of challenges, and infra- structure is one of the most crippling ones. It is a two-pronged issue; on the one hand he/she is trying to work around issues at the state level; work past systemic deficits. One the other hand, he/she is trying to work within a fragmented ecosystem. Entrepreneurs in Kenya are trying to fill the void with their innovations counting on their idea to meet the needs of the common man, and yet, more often than not, these start-ups either miss the point, or get it com- plete right but fail to scale.


What next?

For entrepreneurs to succeed there needs to be established space and connectivity. Further to that, they need healthy collaboration and com- petition. The start-up scene needs more entrepreneurs and more angel investors. In the case of the latter, investors who would be willing to accept a 5%-10% success rate, and play a significant role in driving the industry forward.

Investment in itself is a challenge and in Kenya, the majority of start- ups are fishing from the same invest- ment pool. In many cases, funding is the goal, with no workable business

plan in place to implement after that funding has been secured. Ideally, successful projects should scale up, have a product go to market and either continue to grow successfully or manage to sell the business.

For  entrepreneurs  to  work  in a dynamic environment they need to stop relying on their friends and family for feedback, and collabo- rate, tweak one another’s ideas, and ensure that their ideas are practical in the real world.

The captains of industry need to play their role as mentors and coach- es, who can provide academic and corporate buy-in, and help entrepre- neurs stress test their ideas.

The same could be said for major telephone companies getting involved in the investment and char- ity side.

And, if we are being frank, there are also some tough conversations that need to take place, about where the industry stands and whether or not there is equity and equality in investment process.

In the case of the former, take a place like Konza City for example – this is supposed to be the outward facing example of Kenya’s digital revolution, and yet it is more like a pink horse – not quite as substantial, in fact, as an elephant.

In the case of the latter,  we  need to examine whether there is an investment bias towards teams that have a particular make-up (featuring African women and/or Caucasian men) or address a particular need (something that is “worthy” in the eyes of NGOs.)

Entrepreneurship in Kenya  is  at a critical juncture, and with this comes a key opportunity. We need to identify the enabling and disabling aspects of the Silicon Savannah and ensure that we create the conditions for robust ecosystem.

Article by Kris Senanu – MD Telkom