San Francisco has been the leading tourist city in the US for the past few years in a row. But the Kenyan visitors to the Bay Area in early October were not interested in the breathtaking Golden Gate Bridge or Lombard Street, the world’s most crooked. They had their sights on Silicon Valley, the undisputed capital of America’s high-tech industry and home to such greats as Google, Facebook, HP and more recently Twitter.
It turns out that San Francisco’s tourism appeal and technology credentials are in fact closely related. What makes Silicon Valley so great? I asked Dan Kaplan, Product Marketing Manager at Twilio, one of the new startups dotting the valley. ‘The first thing is that it is a place that rich people want to live. People who make their money want to stay,” he told me, paraphrasing Y Combinator founder Paul Graham. “Secondly is that it has two top-notch world-class technical institutions, Stanford and Berkeley, which produce talented engineers every year who are hungry to build new tech companies.”
Twilio describes itself as a platform for building telephony applications in the cloud. It is currently available for developers in the US and Canada only but the Kenya ICT Board still met with two top executives. In a forum also attended by Information Minister Samuel Poghisio, the executives wondered what carrots Kenya would dangle to attract them.
In its charm offensive in Silicon Valley, the blandly named ICT Board (techies prefer something with more pizzazz and less formal) pitched the planned $7 billion Konza Technology City. The ground-breaking for the project 50km from Nairobi is expected in coming weeks and the Government is keen to see “Africa’s silicon savannah” come to fruition.
One of the pioneer valley firms Hewlett Packard has intimated that it may be leaving the personal computer business but its other lines of business will remain, including one related to “future cities.’”‘You need to take a realistic schedule as you move ahead with Konza, many other governments stumble because they want to do it all by tomorrow,” said Walter Reichert, International Trade Development Director in charge of Government Affairs at HP. He suggests a phased out implementation for Konza, something the State has already put into drawings and plans for the techno city.
Mr Reichert has good background for his advice. “Father of Ethernet” Robert Metcalfe, a leading voice in the American tech space has famously noted that “Silicon Valley is the only place on Earth not trying to figure out how to become Silicon Valley”.
Not to be fazed, Information ministry officials and ICT Board managers shuttled from one office to another selling Kenya as an IT destination, answering questions and smiling. We were not allowed into an hour- long meeting at Google but shared services project manager Harry Mwangi was enthusiastic about the encounter.
“It went quite well. They shared with us trends globally which are in line with activities on the ground in Kenya and validated the fact that Kenya is a leader in the region in online and mobile activity,’ he said. The board has just finished an ICT masterplan for Kenya and is currently receiving feedback from the public before proceeding with it.
Google is already digitising tonnes of government data in Kenya especially parliamentary proceedings and court rulings. It has just launched a Kenyan version of its popular video sharing website Youtube.co.ke. One user on the site with the moniker ‘Man143Steph637’ faulted the ICT Board on the comments section of an NTV story on the tour: “…Kenya ICT Board has been spending too much money for travel overseas for things we never see benefits from. Ever since the board and its CEO have been going to Silicon Valley (sic) and other places on the globe including London, have they not learnt enough so that they can now concentrate on implementing it?’
But board’s CEO Paul Kukubo responded to the criticism, saying: ”Our vision is that Kenya becomes a top-ten global ICT hub…There is a time for everything and now is a time to position Kenya aggressively while we have the world’s attention in ICT!
The party also toured the reputable Stanford University, credited with nurturing Silicon Valley’s founding firms. Kenyan David Mwangi, 25 just graduated with a Masters in Computer Science and was hired by Google a few months ago as a developer. I asked him why he did not come back to Kenya. ‘The environment is not right, not yet,”“he shot back. “Somebody with a revolutionary idea would not thrive in Kenya at the moment because the exposure and access to financing has not developed,’ he opined.
I asked another respected Silicon Valley insider Paul Bragiel what makes the place so enviable? He has been behind three successful startups and now runs an incubation space for upcoming tech-preneurs in the trendy Mission District of San Francisco. ‘The most important thing Kenya needs to focus on is the people, don’t put money into infrastructure or buildings, but invest in young entrepreneurs and make them feel welcome to start companies,” he answered. Mr Bragiel admits he started some companies that ‘failed spectacularly but making entrepreneurship cool is the way to go.
Kenya’s message to the academia and diaspora community at Stanford was fairly straightforward: We’re here to work with you. “Hopefully we can create relationships and linkages with Stanford, Berkeley and with any other so we can deepen research and continue to supply ICT with relevant talent,” said board Deputy CEO Eunice Kariuki.
Venture capitalists, angel investors and people willing to fund good ideas built the valley’s ecosystem. Arjun Costa, who scouts investments in sub-Saharan Africa for social investment outfit Omidyar Network is a good example. His organisation is an early stage investor in companies and has funded a few Kenyans including Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS. “We don’t put in the first dollar but we look for a proof of concept and some customers so we know that the company can build a product that somebody will pay for.” His only problem is that he is not getting enough such companies in Kenya to invest in.
Nonetheless, the level of activity and maturity of ideas by Kenyan techies impress him whenever he visits. Mbwana Ali is a Tanzanian immigrant in the US who works with Mr Bragiel’s I/O Ventures. “Entrepreneurs need to make sure they focus on building their product well. A lot of people here in the valley start off solving a problem that they are passionate about, then it grows into a company,” he says.
Timothy Sturgeon, a senior research affiliate at the equally reputable Massachussets Institute of Technology is a Silicon Valley insider having previously been at Berkeley. He has best summarised the Valley’s credo: “Perhaps the strongest thread that runs through the Valley’s past and present is the drive to “play” with novel technology, which, when bolstered by an advanced engineering degree and channeled by astute management, has done much to create the industrial powerhouse we see in the Valley today.”
Mr Ali agrees. “It has all the pieces of the ecosystem solved and it has been done over many years. No one country can jump and become a Silicon Valley in one goal but there are lots of steps to get there.’