Silicon Savannah: How Explosive Politics Lead to a Tech Boom

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silicon savannah
OkHi | Humanosphere.com

Silicon Savannah refers to a region in Kenya that has experienced the first tech boom on the African continent.

M-PESA | vodafone.com

The birth of the African tech industry started here in 2007 with M-PESA, the first mobile money service on the continent. Though there was an abundance of cell phone users in the market, there was no retail banking infrastructure. With the app, even the most lo-fi mobile devices were transformed into mobile banking and money transfer machines.

Africans who may not have had bank accounts completely skipped the traditional banking experience and were suddenly a part of a modern, digital economy.

In that same year, a new groundbreaking app was created out of political necessity in Kenya. Ushahidi was first developed in a collaborative brainstorm by technologist Erik Hersman, activist Ory Okolloh, IT blogger Juliana Rotich, and programmer David Kobia as a way to track outbreaks of political violence during a particularly tumultuous election in the country. As the political climate became more tepid, the app transformed into a global tracking tool that boasts international use.

The Silicon Savannah is Africa's Silicon Valley.Click To Tweet

As the community began to build, Kenya became a sort of hub for tech innovation and startups. The government took notice and began investing more in ICT, and with the completion of the TEAMs submarine fiber optic cable in 2010 (there are now 5 cables), even more people were connected from Kenya’s coast to the UAE.

Silicon Savannah Fosters Continental Community

Silicon Savannah is the official origin place of Africa’s tech movement, but different tech communities are flourishing across the continent.

There seems to be a template that works for building a tech industry in Africa that transcends the steady and predictable tech scene in more developed places like the U.S. and as such, the focus of the African tech industry is a different beast, concentrating more on using technology as a way to circumvent poor infrastructure and moving forward from there.

One thing that is a given for establishing any sort of new tech infrastructure is the importance of community. The Silicon Savannah is just one part of that.

Ushahidi | Africa-me.com

Nairobi’s Ngong Road became synonymous with African IT and is the host of the iHub innovation center which, hosting at least 15,00 members, is the place where “numerous young Kenyans work in its labs and interact with global technologists such as Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer.” With iHub came the beginning of a continent-wide “innovation center movement” which are an integral part of ICT infrastructure in Africa.

Zambia, Nigeria, Uganda, and Ghana are just a few countries that have thriving tech hubs and co-creating spaces that are hot spots for talent and training in Africa.  Their focuses vary from venture and profit driven to grant based and geared towards social change.

In our last piece about infrastructure and the role of foreign education for those in underdeveloped countries, we discussed the role of scholars who leave their homes to study and work for global companies, and how they may or may not have an effect on the communities they left behind.

By looking at the tech community in Africa as a whole, we can see that an established group of former expat techies have become major leaders in African tech. Erik Hersman and Juliana Rotich from iHub, Senegalese-born business-woman Mariéme Jamme, and CEO Rebecca Enonchong, are just a few of the standouts who have come back to Africa to serve as mentors to young techies, global spokespeople, innovators, investors and business people.

Mariéme Jamme | Mariemejamme.com

Face to Face Tech

The open landscape of tech and startup capabilities in Africa’s markets has investors and innovators interested. This “new frontier” of tech means that there is still untapped potential for data collection and storage, as well as e-commerce and delivery services- markets that have been saturated and are next to impossible to break into in places like the U.S.

Asoko Insight is a platform that compiles corporate data, bringing the most investable companies in Africa into an easily accessible database.

Premise Data is another Data Center that “provides what’s common in California but rare in Nigeria: verified consumer market data.” The challenge of Africa, however is that gathering the data is still an uphill challenge that many Silicon Valley might still scoff at.

Premise Data “recruits tens of thousands of contributors to gather observations in the marketplace on what products are available, who is walking in the store, and how far they are from the nearest bank.”

OkHi, a delivery app, also circumvents Africa’s sometimes frustrating infrastructure problems by allowing customers to provide pictures and their precise coordinates for deliveries to places that don’t have specific addresses. Their face to face, on the ground data collection shows how AfriTech has developed a different model for success.

Meanwhile, thanks to a surge of venture capital investment in AfriTech (which has quickly moved from millions to billions in recent years), there are more successful websites for fashion, digital payments, booking flights, employment, tv and film streaming, and shipping. Africans are independently building their own new digital landscape.

Non-Linear Links to The Future

We’ve already covered the ways that Africa’s lack of infrastructure is a limitation for innovation in technology, but it is this very same lack makes the continent a new frontier for startups. With new technology on the rise on a global scale, it was only a matter of time for startups to gain headway and carve out a place in African countries that provide jobs and tech services for people living on the continent.

Underdeveloped countries are perfect breeding grounds for renewable and next-generation technology and industry because they can essentially skip the petroleum age. In most African and Latin American countries that are rich in resources, the little infrastructure that exists emphasizes an extraction model, that is, exporting resources from inside of the country into exterior ports for shipping abroad. Rarely do we see an internal interlinked infrastructure that promotes domestic trade and development.

While this has historically contributed to the lack of internal development within counties spanning these aforementioned continents, it now offers a blank canvas to implement next-generation solutions.

For example, while Europe–and even the U.S. to a certain extent–struggles with the enormously expensive task of modernizing often established and archaic infrastructures, underdeveloped countries in Africa, for instance, will not have the same problem to the same extent. Therefore, implementing renewable infrastructures and next-gen industries will arguably be much cheaper and faster than in Europe and the U.S.

Revitalizing an Old Relationship

The tech industry is developing differently than its counterparts in other parts of the globe, and the model of development shows a shift from previous and exploitative models of development on the continent. Even in the case of major multinational interest in the continent as evidenced by the new presence of Facebook and Netflix, international investment and interest has been a welcome addition to the techies in Africa.

The relationship between china and Africa, though it is often presented in a negative light, has been beneficial to development on the continent. More than the cultural influence of the nation on countries in the continent, Africans appreciate the consistent investment that china has poured into the continent, especially when it comes to infrastructure like highways, roads, public transportation. Despite the popular western narrative, most Africans have a positive opinion of China. As Africa sets the stage for its own independence in the industry, it will be interesting to see how countries on the continent continue to work with China in the next few years.

Future Predictions for Africa and the Silicon Savannah

Because the industry is still burgeoning in Africa, there are still many unknowns about what to expect, even in the near future, for tech hubs like Silicon Savannah.

With more than half of sub-Saharan Africa’s economy being informal, will this lead start-ups to rest on the forefront Africa’s informal economy?

How will the continuous government investments in ICT affect competition on an international scale on the continent?

Will it have a transformative impact on Africa’s politics? This seems inevitable, as more and more tech has been proven to be an aid as well as a hindrance to political activity in recent years across the globe.

How will inevitable failures that start-ups face affect ICT ventures and investment across the continent?

Right now all we have are questions and speculation. But it will be interesting to see how African tech continues to develop.

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