Kenya becoming a global ICT hub

Big information technology companies have set bases in Kenya in the past few months. Companies such as Microsoft and Alphabet have pitched a tent in the country. In the process, they are recruiting hundreds of young Kenyans as developers and creating new jobs for the unemployed. These companies have seen an untapped opportunity.

Therefore, US President Joe Biden's nominee for ambassador to Kenya, Margaret Cushing Whitman, clearly indicates that our country is becoming a critical ICT destination for the world. And her many years of experience in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) could benefit Kenya.

Whitman serves on the boards of Procter & Gamble and General Motors. Previously she was president and CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise. In addition, Whitman had a stint at Quibi, a content streaming platform for mobile devices, as CEO between 2018 and 2020.

She received multiple awards, according to her biography, including induction into the US Business Hall of Fame and the Bay Area Business Hall of Fame.

Although the critical responsibilities of ambassadors include maintaining diplomatic relations with the receiving nations, they also advance their foreign policy objectives. As a result, they have latitude in pursuing areas of common interest within the policy agenda. And her predecessors sought to work with Kenya in the development of ICTs.

In early 2006, the then US ambassador to Kenya, William Bellamy, arranged for me, as permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communications, to meet with Thomas Friedman, the former New York Times columnist and author of the best-selling book The World is Flat.

During that meeting, Friedman explained how India had taken advantage of cheap undersea fibre-optic networks and abundant labour to create massive employment for those in the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry. Friedman stressed that Africa could do the same thing, thereby sowing a seed that would change the continent's economic fortunes.

Ambassador Bellamy’s successor Michael Ranneberger through USAID, facilitated linkages to Stanford University and various multinational organisations, including IBM, Cisco, Oracle, and other smaller Silicon Valley-based organisations that later played a vital role in developing ICTs in Kenya.

In particular, IBM agreed to collaborate with the Government of Kenya in research and human resource development. The collaboration agreement sought to develop at least four PhDs research scientists annually and share proceeds from any innovations.

Unfortunately, our transactional and inflexible procurement rules undermined a relationship that could have transformed Kenya into an innovation hub for science and technology.

Since 2012, the lab has produced several innovations across healthcare and financial sectors to which the country cannot claim ownership. But unfortunately, we failed to honour our collaboration commitments. In my view, it was a mistake we should never repeat. Instead, we now must take it as a lesson and begin to exploit every opportunity that comes our way.

The coming of these technologies is not guaranteed. We have work to seize the opportunities brought by the big techies, especially now when the International Monetary Fund casts doubt on the country’s attraction as an investment destination. But, as they say, actions speak louder than words. We must demonstrate that the country is an excellent investment destination.

In the coming election, we have the opportunity to showcase that Kenya’s politics has matured and that the country is stable. However, we also need to reform the energy sector to lower the cost of production, develop new policies to strengthen our governance systems and make government institutions strong irrespective of the political landscape.

These suggestions can prevent rent-seeking behaviours of public servants. Further, we need to create laws to limit the period it takes the judiciary to finalise cases in courts. Although these proposals are not comprehensive, they go can long way to improve our country’s competitiveness for investment.

According to the most recent data from Africa: The Big Deal, a database tracking and sharing insights on start-up funding on the continent, African startups raised $3.1 billion in funding in the first half of 2022. Nigeria leads the way with $ 1 billion, followed closely by Kenya and making the country one of the Big Four African nations garnering the most capital.

The rising interest in African startups demonstrates that there are great entrepreneurial ideas in Africa to attract more investments. The demographic dividend is living up to the promise. In Ambassador Whitman, we could have a great network in Silicon Valley.

She is an excellent fit for Kenya at the moment. If we do our part to create a conducive environment for investors and our startups, Kenya will be the ICT hub for the world because of what we offer and the youth dividends and start-ups.

The writer is a professor of entrepreneurship in the University of Nairobi’s Faculty of Business and Management Sciences.

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