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Opinion & Analysis

How Kenya gave rise to Africa ICT revolution

Technology startups in Africa are going places. In 2016, they raised funding in excess of $129 million (Sh13 billion), according to the just released Disrupt Africa Report.

Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria were the top three beneficiaries of this investor funding. Although the fintech sector received the highest funding, fortunes are changing to agri-tech, which attracted the biggest percentage growth compared to previous years.

It is perhaps the start of the diversification of Africa’s tech portfolio. I have been asked many times to share my experience on what we did right to see Kenya leap from obscurity in technology and give rise to an Information and Communications Technology (ICT) revolution in Africa.

There are many reasons why we succeeded but key among them were political will, a dynamic approach to policy making and implementation and courage to effectively deal with the ICT infrastructure in the country.

In ‘‘Digital Kenya: An Entrepreneurial Revolution in the Making’’, a book that I co-edited with my friend Tim Weiss, we capture some of these factors and the stories around Kenya’s rise in ICTs.

We also investigate the power of technology in Kenya to help strengthen every sector and of entrepreneurship as the key driver in innovation creativity and disruption.

We have recorded the so-far-undocumented story of technology start-ups, entrepreneurship, and the dynamic policy making that ushered in a new era for Kenya.

In my recent article in Newsweek, “How Kenya Became the Cradle of Africa’s Technological Innovation,” I elaborated in detail that the paradigm shift that facilitated Kenya’s digital revolution was the result of a number of overlapping factors.

The first one was India’s experience and policy framework, which served as a benchmark and source of inspiration for growth in the face of real challenges.

As in India, innovators in Kenya learned that information and communications technology (ICT) has great potential to help propel the country out of unemployment and poverty.

In February 2006, barely two months in office, myself and my then minister, Mutahi Kagwe, drafted our agenda.

This agenda was to effectively deal with infrastructural problem and lower the cost of broadband, encourage development of content and applications, leverage public private partnerships to achieve our goals, develop capacity and create employment.

As we planned to launch our simple policy objectives, Mr Kagwe decided to invite then President Mwai Kibaki. The venue of our launch at Safari Park was filled to capacity. It was our first event and, as usual, we expected the president to leave after the official opening. He didn’t. “I want also want to listen to what you are planning to say,” he said.

We were paralysed, but nevertheless we proceeded. In the afternoon break, the president asked. “What do you need?” “Your support, Sir,” I replied. ‘‘Basi nyinyi endelea (proceed then)’’. he said. It was the beginning of change.

The president fully supported the rapid change that brought the TEAMS cable, the foundational step in Kenya’s emergent ICT entrepreneurial revolution. This was quickly followed up by the opening up of public data that stirred widespread apps development.

We also subsidised broadband to Kenya Educational Network and actualized student subsidy (Wezesha or “to enable”) to acquire laptops. This improved access to learning resources at every university including private ones.

Civil society, through the online discussion portal KICTANet, kept us in check. Painful as their interactions were, we learnt to live together.

They were instrumental in pushing for additional data sets into the Kenya Open Data Initiative and raised many additional policy issues beyond a mere call for data.

Other factors, such as the founding of iHub, investments in research and seed capital for social enterprises provided by institutions, including the Rockefeller Foundation, propelled Kenya’s many ICT programmes and projects in ways that involved and empowered the less fortunate.

Digital Kenya seeks to bring into perspective the ongoing debate about adoption of disruptive ICTs not just in Kenya but also throughout the world.

Kenya is not new to disruption, considering the fact that our own innovations—such as M-Pesa and Ushahidi—are causing disruptions in other parts of the world, and that many more Kenyan-led innovations are under way.

To ensure that Kenya and Africa continue to contribute to this important growth, we must open up the conversation about entrepreneurialism and risk, and be supportive of disruptions coming from elsewhere.

The ICT revolution is a global and competitive phenomenon that is heralding a new paradigm of creativity and innovation in virtually every part of the world. I hope the book will help Kenyans and others to understand the difficulties in public office.

Looking at policy from various perspectives—such as the entrepreneurial approaches explored in chapter 12, “Inside a Policymaker’s Mind: An Entrepreneurial Approach to Policy Development and Implementation,”—as a strategy for dealing with some of the more pressing challenges could revolutionise how we tackle development challenges in general and help the world make real progress toward the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

The aim of the book also is to help policymakers approach policy differently than they have done in the past.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business and former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication.

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