The Obama visit to Kenya could actualize the Silicon Savannah dream

The BRCK Made In Kenya, Assembled In America (image source www.fastcoexist.com)
Silicon Savannah, Hope or Hype
(image courtesy of http://mutuamatheka.co.ke/)

The 6th Global Entrepreneurship Summit will be happening in Nairobi Kenya on July 25-26 and shall be graced the United States president, Barack Obama.

President Obama elevated entrepreneurship to the forefront of the United States’ engagement agenda during a historic speech in Cairo in 2009. Since 2010, when the U.S. hosted the first Summit in Washington, D.C., GES has expanded to a global event, subsequently hosted by the governments of Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, and Morocco. The Summit set to take place at the United Nations Complex in Nairobi is the sixth annual gathering of entrepreneurs at all stages of business development, business leaders, mentors, and high-level government officials. The established tradition demonstrates the U.S. Government’s continued commitment to fostering entrepreneurship around the world.

Kenya has made its name known to the world as not just as the home of world known athletes but lately, as the place in Africa that is spurring a lot of innovation and where the uptake and development of unique mobile solutions has taken root surpassing the rest of the world.

Although Kenya is mentioned with the same breath as one of its best mobile implementation- the Mpesa mobile money service, the term Silicon Savannah, though started out as an aspirational term taunting the well known Silicon Valley,  might just become a reality all thanks to the upcoming Summit.

Kenya’s economy has seen impressive growth in the last 5 years despite all the ills that plague this country with politics, corruption and terrorism threatening our economic and political stability. This has not gone unnoticed especially by the US government that has been seeking to have better relations despite not agreeing with our politics.

I had the rare opportunity of speaking to the US ambassador to Kenya Amb. Robert F. Godec a few days ago following an invitation to accompany him, together with other Kenyan bloggers, to Machakos Town for the launch of the county’s Strategic Plan for the year 2020. He later held a one hour closed session with us where I got to ask him a few questions regarding the Summit.

Silicon Savannah
(image source upstart.bizjournals.com)

Why Kenya was the best choice to host GES 2015
During the last GES summit in Morocco, the decision was made to hold the next summit in Sub-Saharan Africa.  As the ambassador disclosed in the blogger session, the Kenya was picked unanimously due to the many exciting innovations and the palpable spirit of entrepreneurship among the youth.

Although a lot of these exciting things have been termed as mere hype by critics, Kenya is going through what other countries that have experienced a vibrant innovation and entrepreneurship culture have gone through. There is an enabling environment of different innovation hubs not just in Nairobi but also in Kisumu, Mombasa that are helping sustain the community of developers, entrepreneurs and startup founders. The presence of multinational Tech companies such as Intel, Microsoft, IBM has also helped a lot with the frequent challenges in form of app challenge and pitching competitions that are organised round the year.

Although the Kenyan startup community has not been able to attract formidable investors especially at the  seed stage, there are those like Weza Tele and Angani that have been acquired or were able to secure venture Capital investor funding.

Seed Capital the biggest challenge for Kenyan Startup Community

In a recent report published by GSM Association, local technology start-ups are having difficulties accessing financing due to a mixture of factors, including financial institutions and venture capitalists (VCs) shunning tech enterprises at their early stages.

The GSMA report shows that over 80 per cent of Kenyan technology companies in their early stages are either self-funded or rely on funds advanced by family and friends. Such financing is unreliable and has seen many start-ups close shop before they come to fruition, as the source of funds is not focused on the long term. Failure by local entrepreneurs in technology to understand the needs of the financial services sector has also played part in denying the start-up ecosystem financing. The report, Digital Entrepreneurship in Kenya 2014, shows that 60.3 per cent the technology companies are funded by the entrepreneurs, 20.3 per cent by family and friends.

This is something that I know only too well. I have been bootstrapping for my startup Safari Tales for 2 years now with no form of external funding in sight. I am at a point where I have started second guessing myself and if I actually have a product that is solving a need.

Investors at the GES Summit
Perhaps the most exciting news to the Kenyan startup founders and entrepreneurs  (Myself included) is that the GES summit will bring in a lot of investors especially from the US who will be at the summit meeting and listening to different entrepreneurs and startup founders pitching their innovations in a bid to look for the most likely candidates for funding.

The GES Kenya organising team at the US Embassy in Nairobi made a call for applications some time back for Kenyan Entrepreneurs who are interested in attending the 2 day summit. I applied and we are waiting with bated breath to get that email confirming that indeed we be on that list.

The BRCK Made In Kenya, Assembled In America (image source www.fastcoexist.com)
The BRCK, Made In Kenya, Assembled In America (image source www.fastcoexist.com)

The Silicon Savannah Dream
The aspiration to make Kenya the Silicon Savannah is a daring dream which many critics have laughed off as mere fluff and PR gimmicks through international press. Well, it seems to have worked because Kenya will be the first Sub-saharan country to host the GES Summit.

The main criticism point to this Kenyan dream has been the manufacturing bit. The reason why Silicon Valley got its name was because of the many innovations that were designed and manufactured in the San Francisco Bay area where companies like Intel, Apple, Microsoft and IBM started off making it the leading hub and startup ecosystem for high-tech innovation.

It is virtually impossible to carry out any tech manufacturing in Kenya and the BRCK was a very important reality check for us. Call it a nightmare in the dream. Although it was designed in Kenya, the manufacturing and assembly had to be done elsewhere despite being a Kenyan hardware product.

The Taifa Laptop
Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) recently unveiled their locally assembled laptop labelled the Taifa Laptop.

Although this has been lauded as a great achievement from the learning institution, there is still a lot more that the Kenyan government needs to do in creating an enabling environment where Kenya doesn’t just become an assembly place for technology but also a place where actual manufacturing of these innovations is done at an affordable cost.

My GES Summit Wish List
It might be ambitious for us to think that we can realize the Silicon Savannah dream overnight following the GES summit. However, I came up with a wishlist on what I hope can start at the GES summit in a bid to realize this dream.

a. This will be the show of confidence the Kenyan Government needs to see from investors in Kenya’s innovation for the Government to re-introduce tax relief for the importation of tech hardware.

b. Set up assembly and manufacturing plants for computers and other innovative pieces of hardware (The Wrigleys manufacturing plant being set up in Machakos should be a highlight of things to come)

c. Start up competitions that go beyond how articulate those pitching are in selling their idea and those that are able to spot start ups worthy of investment.

d.  That the various government offices that are funding innovation/youth/entrepreneurs develops more feasible ways of measuring the impact of this funding through realistic metrics and thorough follow up.

e. That the many Kenyans investing in real estate can instead see the need to become Angel investors or Venture capitalists to Kenyan Start ups.

f. That borrowing money from financial institutions with your creativity as the collateral will be something possible in the fores-able future.

g. Kenyan higher learning institutions will focus less on cramming and more on what learners can apply. More emphasis on

As we count down to July 25th and as Nairobi comes to a stand still traffic wise, lets do more than wash the streets and plant flowers in the Central Business District.

 

 

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