Kenya: Africa’s innovation hub

With its recent boom in innovative spaces, Kenya is earning its "Silicon Savannah" nickname. (iHub)

You’ve heard of Silicon Valley, the high-tech hub in California, but what about Silicon Savannah? It’s the nickname many use for Kenya, whose economy will grow 6.5 percent in 2015, thanks largely to its information, communications and technology sector (ICT).

Two things set Silicon Savannah’s tech boom apart from such hubs elsewhere in the world. First, Kenyans are using technology to solve local problems. M-Farm is a good example. It’s an app that gives Kenyan farmers current market information so they can get the best prices for their produce. Second, Kenyans are designing products for mobile first. That’s because 99 percent of Kenya’s Internet subscribers, about 16 million people, access the Internet through their mobile devices. Kenyans didn’t begin to use the Internet on personal computers the way many Americans did.

What’s driving the fast growth of ICT startups in Kenya? Innovative spaces.

A place for nurturing ideas

Before you shrug off “innovative space” as jargon, read on. Even as companies thrive in this digital age, physical space matters. In Kenya, innovation happens in innovative spaces, whether co-working offices, accelerators or incubators.

Co-working spaces, such as Nairobi Garage, provide startups with office space that is flexible and hosts more than one company. The shared environment often leads to serendipitous collaborations.

(State Dept.)

Kenya’s accelerators, on the other hand, offer time-defined programs during which an entrepreneur works with mentors to build out a startup as it becomes a more robust business. Nailab, for example, is an accelerator that works with entrepreneurs for a three- to six-month period.

As the name suggests, Kenya’s incubators focus on developing new ideas. They provide advice, mentoring and office space in return for a stake in the resulting company. IHub is Kenya’s best-known incubator and was named the most innovative company in Africa in 2014 by Fast Company magazine.

Kenya’s innovative spaces are acclaimed. UBI Global, a Swedish organization that analyzes incubators around the world, put three in Kenya among its top-five ranking for most promising university business incubators in Africa. (The other two are in Egypt and Morocco.)

(State Dept.)

The success of these innovative spaces is not lost on multinational companies. Two tech giants have established innovation labs in Kenya: the Nokia Research Center and IBM Research–Africa.

Investing in innovation

Several factors contribute to Kenya’s tech surge. In 2007, a Kenyan phone company launched a platform called M-Pesa, allowing people to pay for goods and services using their mobile devices. In a country where few citizens had credit cards or access to banks, M-Pesa revolutionized finance. Today, among Kenyan adults, 74 percent use mobile money, which makes it easy for ICT startups to accept consumer payments.

A second contributing factor came in 2009 when the Kenyan government helped bring in fiber-optic Internet. The cables allowed the country to leapfrog existing satellite technology and gave citizens inexpensive access to the Internet, whether on computers or mobile phones. (Also, even while technology flourishes, the Kenyan government continues to upgrade its existing traditional infrastructure.)

(State Dept.)

The Silicon Savannah attracts international venture capitalists, nonprofit organizations and foreign aid agencies. From July 25 to 26, they will be there for the sixth annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit. It’s the first time the summit will be held in sub-Saharan Africa, one more sign of Kenya’s strong economy. To learn more about the summit, visit the 2015 website.  For additional information and resources for aspiring entrepreneurs, visit the ShareAmerica collection.