Over the past 5 years Nairobi, or the ‘Silicon Savanah,’ has blossomed into a global hub and a regional role model for cultivating innovation. mPesa, Safaricom’s mobile money platform, has led the globe in electronic payments serving emerging markets and base of the pyramid.
Nairobi is home to the first tech incubator in Africa, the iHub, that has supported and inspired a movement of young tech-savvy Africans to develop community, think big, and take risks building products, services, and platforms for local markets.
This energy and excitement emanating from Nairobi’s tech epicenter has garnered the attention of governments, donors, VCs and impact investors, and Silicon Valley giants such as Google — all who regularly add Nairobi to their itineraries trying to understand what makes this place what it is.
Technology Salon Nairobi gathered a group of thought leaders, entrepreneurs, investors, donors and development practitioners to try to get closer to identifying “What is the Secret to Kenya’s Technology Success?” Lead discussants Mbwana Alliy (Savannah Fund) and Ben Lyon (Kopo Kopo) were there to kick-start the discussion with insights from their own experiences.
The consensus? “Community, connectivity, and caffeine!”
- Talented human resources Kenyan Universities educate capable coders and energetic engineers! While graduates often lack the practical skills required by employers, those start-ups and companies that can attract the cream of the crop are benefiting from high value labor. It can be a challenge to attract the best away from banks and multi-national tech companies, but start-ups are taking a cue from Silicon Valley and offering stock options to fill the gap between the salaries they can pay and market rate.
- An ecosystem that facilitates growth Resources are available to support entrepreneurs at multiple levels. Kopo Kopo, for example, started working with a small team sitting around a shared table in the iHub, moved the mLab where they had more dedicated space and additional support, and then into a private office in the same building along Ngong Rd., close to the people and resources that were key ingredients to their success. The ecosystem is ever growing, now including testing facilities, research, and a soon-to-be maker space where innovation can bleed into the physical. MIT Innovations published a piece by Erik Hersman that provides a powerful picture of the inter-connectivity of the Nairobi ecosystem.
- Mentors role models Every incubator or accelerator will tell you that mentorship by seasoned entrepreneurs is a critical, if not the most critical, element of their success. Nairobi is no different. It has local entrepreneurs, returned diaspora, and linkages to Silicon Valley mentor networks that are playing an active role in shepherding young talent through the start-up process. In addition to providing salient advice they are living examples that demonstrate failure is not the end, but that those who falter will live to see another day.
- Multi-disciplinary collaboration The high profile of the tech community has attracted individuals and organizations from multiple sectors, facilitating learning and collaboration between people with a diverse set of expertise. This is an area that has been identified for further improvement with groups spearheading events like Wireless Wednesday to bring people together around different topic and strategizing ways to decrease the gap between academia and industry. As one attendee put it, “Tech can’t exist in a silo.”
- Culture A combination of the above, the Nairobi tech scene has somehow cultivated a culture of cool that attracts talent, encourages risk-taking, and makes everyone want to be part. It’s an infectious self-reinforcing cycle that continues to define Nairobi’s vibrant tech community.
- Technical infrastructure The ‘Silicon Savannah’ would not exist without fast and cheap Internet and communications infrastructure. The fiber optic cable laid in 2008 and price wars between mobile network operators have created an enabling environment suited to tech-oriented businesses and the easy exchange of information and ideas.
- A relatively mature mobile market Some of Nairobi’s success can be attributed to high mobile penetration that has created a mass market for tech-oriented businesses. The early existence of platforms, such as mPesa, have also enabled creative minds to build, improve, and innovate on existing technology. “It’s easier to innovate when you don’t have to begin from scratch.”
- Business networks Nairobi tech start-ups and companies are benefiting from business connections to India, the US (Silicon Valley, in particular) and the ease of regional trade. Whereas start-ups in other markets often struggle to move beyond their borders, friendly trade regulations and a history of economic cooperation allow Kenyan entrepreneurs move seamlessly between Kigali, Dar es Salam, and Kampala, expanding their market and their exposure. Nairobi’s status as an emerging leader in tech development and the relatively large number of Kenyans working and studying internationally have extended business networks beyond the city and region.
- Connected ideas Kenya is closely following and learning from international models. They are reading the right books, the diaspora is returning with world-class MBAs and with first-hand experience in Silicon Valley, internationals are identifying exciting market opportunities and descending on Nairobi with a few savings, their laptops and ideas, and leading technology companies are sending their best as ambassadors to the Nairobi’s tech community – all of which are broadening the awareness and access of young, smart, driven Kenyans.Caffeine
- Pete’s Coffee You really can’t talk about Kenya’s tech community without Pete’s coffee. Pete’s original blend provides fuel for marathon work sessions and the Tex-Mex café is the best place in Nairobi to bump into the who’s who of the tech scene. It has provided the backdrop for many meetings – planned and happenstance – that have catalyzed new ideas, enterprises, and partnerships.
Certainly the secret to Nairobi’s success is much more nuanced that could be covered in an hour and a half. Questions remained unresolved such as the role of donors and impact investors – do they distort market forces that drive innovation or provide the safety nets and financial resources for entrepreneurs from disadvantaged backgrounds? Is the tech community providing opportunity and touching lives in Kenya beyond the 3km radius of the iHub on Ngong Road? But alas, 10:30 am struck and these are questions to tackle at future Tech Salons…
Thanks to Ben Bellows and the Population Council for organizing and all who attended! It was a pleasure to spend an hour and a half with you exploring what makes Nairobi Nairobi.
Jessica Heinzelman is a Senior ICT Specialist at DAI where she works across their global portfolio of development projects to support the effective use of technology. She is proud to have occupied a chair at the iHub in Nairobi from May to August 2010 as the magic was first happening.