The Past, Present & Future of Digital Nyika picture
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The Past, Present & Future of Digital Nyika

19 minute read

In conversation with Jimmy Gitonga: How to fix an aircraft in mid-air!

Jimmy, what fascinates you about digital technology in Kenya?

In May 2015, we witnessed a moderately sized “exit” through purchase of a technology startup at about 1.7 million US dollars. Recently, a mid-sized company closed a large funding round, receiving 47 million US dollars and allowing them to expand sufficiently across their countries of interest in Africa. We have some sad tales as well. We had a technology startup suffer and loose local market leadership through the failure of top management, brought about by what I would call “culture and vision fit” issues.

I have attended numerous seminars and industry events and I have noticed interesting trends that affect how we, as Kenyans in particular and Africans in general, are interacting with digital technology and the proliferation in digital products. Clearly, technology sits on top of culture.

Let us look at this through a different perspective. In Kenya, we can see a cultural transition happening as the generation that witnessed the independence of the country move off the stage. The generation, born between 1970 and 1980 witnessed the political realignment that came after the Cold War, has grown up. Apartheid and its proxy wars came to an end as propped up countries like Somalia and Yugoslavia collapsed. In the 1990s, Mandela became a global icon because of the Internet and easy access to it through the personal computer. The personal computer and the Internet came to Africa especially with the backdrop of these global political re-alignments. Remember, the electronics giant, Apple could not sell a certain model of computers to so-called “enemy states” of the USA. The Mobile came in the 2000s. Cyber-warfare has become the tool, among countries that are politically opposed, used to settle, or not, their differences “online”. So the place of governments and the ICT sector are intertwined.

For most Kenyans, the Mobile and the Internet arrived together. The people picking these two up are people mostly below 35 years of age, which is another generation.

Jimmy, what would you say were the key milestones that brought Kenya’s ICT sector to where it is today?

I handled my first computer at the University of Nairobi. There was no degree in Computer Science then, just a post-graduate diploma. For programming languages, we studied Basic, Fortran and COBOL. We worked on Wang® terminals connected to the University’s Mainframe. I finished at the university and joined the Kenya Polytechnic for a transition course to Electronic Engineering where we studied everything related to “light [electrical] current” technology. I was equipped for the computer age in Kenya. Pre-Internet software development industry was gaining traction with “Lotus”, “FoxPro” and “Dbase”, the names being thrown around then.

Around this time, the Internet landed in Kenya visibly through a company of “young Turks” called Africa Online and one of an older guard known as FORM-Net Africa. Almost anyone who has become prominent in the Internet space in Kenya came from or passed through these two companies. One thing that did not happen is the landing of fiber-optic cables on the East African coast. The cables went round Southern Africa, passed by going to Mauritius and landing in India. Kenya and other Eastern Africa countries would have to rely on the expensive satellite Internet connection for another decade.

At the same time, most of Africa was in political upheaval as the Cold War period closed with the emergence of “multi-partism” and human rights. These were attached to the Bretton Woods institutions’ Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) that were implemented from the 1980s onwards. The SAPs wiped out most of the social facilities that African countries had created after their independence. In Kenya, health and education were hit hard. A system called “Cost Sharing” was introduced. A lot of people, who had already been hammered by falling prices of local goods, due to liberalized markets, could not afford medication for their babies or schooling for their children. We are now reaping the effects of those years with a lot of delinquency.

The “real” Kenyan economy shrunk relative to population growth with rural to urban migration growing earnestly. Nairobi’s population grew by over 61% between 1989 and 1999, compared to a 34% growth in the entire country. This is the time that Microsoft’s Windows 95 spread and with it the Microsoft Office suite of “packages”. Computer manipulation skills were in demand, creating a market for computer related training that was colloquially known as “learning packages”. This fed the need for alternative tertiary training for the urban immigrants and school leavers as well as bringing current management executives in many companies up to digital speed.

By the time the Internet 1.0/Dot-Com bubble burst in 2001, Kenya entered into a “Second Liberation” political era with the end of the rule of the political party that had been in power for close to 40 years. Foreign investment and the effects of the privatization of state corporations continued with the entry of mobile telephony networks in Kenya as well as most of Africa. Safaricom, a spin-off from the state corporation Telkom Kenya, brought in affordable mobile connectivity to a country that had slightly over 320,000 fixed lines at the time. By 2002, there were 500,000 mobile phone users and the growth has been in double digit percentages until recently.

At this time, the Kenya government removed importation related taxes on mobile devices and computers. This allowed almost anyone afford a mobile phone while laptops began to be a common site at the universities. Kenya’s then Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication, Doctor Bitange Ndemo, led a move to break away from the bureaucracy plagued Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSy) and set up the TEAMS (The East African Marine System) Consortium. Once launched in 2009 and after a number of cable mishaps, the TEAMS cable has upgraded its designed capacity from 640Gb/s to the current 1200Gb/s and Kenya with most East African countries uses this cable due to its better transmission quality and reliability. Other cables have come in to make a total of four fiber-optic cables in Mombasa. Access to Internet has become a reality for many people.

In 2007 Vodafone, through Safaricom, launched the MPesa money transfer platform. Since then MPesa has become the global leader in mobile money transfer and brought in the possibility of Kenya and Africa being at the forefront of “M-Commerce”.  Just a year later, the crisis crowdsourcing platform Ushahidi was created to monitor the increasingly opaque Kenyan election scenario in early 2008. This platform then went on to become a globally recognized and used way to monitor crisis.

In 2010, the first technology community led “hub” was opened. The iHub, which stands for “innovation Hub”, is a co-working and hacker space and in its own words, “a nexus for technologists, investors, young entrepreneurs, designers, researchers and programmers.” The iHub is the pioneer among the numerous co-working and incubation spaces across Africa. It is here and in other African technology, art/culture and co-working spaces that the question of global positioning of the African Digital Entrepreneur began being asked.

If AfricaOnline and FORM-Net Africa surfaced the first wave of digital entrepreneurs and companies, these four events; the Kenya government’s genuine commitment to ICT, the MPesa platform, Ushahidi and the iHub were the milestones in the making of Kenyan technology landscape with its new moniker, the “Silicon Savannah”.

I don’t know about Kenya’s and I am sure others have a different view of the growth of ICT in Kenya but these are my milestones.

What do you think of the “Silicon Savannah’s” future? What can we expect?

That is a good question and such questions have started being asked in the expounding of the vision of the Silicon Savannah. Is it possible or is it a dream, driven by the hype of tech-savvy Kenyans? Are these dreams realistic? What will it take to put Kenya and Africa on the global technological map? In Kenya, again you can see the two parties in it, the “government” with its politico-economic agenda and the “people’s” relationship with it as they go along their business.

As the initial media spotlight continues to dim, a number of fundamental issues regarding business anywhere are becoming apparent. Kenyan entrepreneurs do not have the requisite knowledge and commercial infrastructure to build globally recognized technology companies when compared to their Western counterparts. This is not an “inability” problem. It is a “virtual infrastructure” problem. We will just have to put together everything required to create a favourable ecosystem even as rest of the world moves at breakneck speed. What is being asked of entrepreneurs here is equivalent to fixing an aircraft in mid air. Not only is the global technology landscape changing rapidly, African entrepreneurs are being asked to stake their claim as it changes. And if that is based on the timeline of Silicon Valley in California, in the USA, then we are 50 years late to the party.

Being late to the party is one thing, what are, however, the underlying issues at play?

Africans seem to have a penchant to accepting foreign ideas and absorbing them without critically investigating the source, history, necessity and workability of the ideas in the African space. Looking at the words being used in this African technology environment, “Silicon Savannah”, one can see that not a lot of thought was put into the connotation and it seems that the perception of the American “Silicon Valley” has been taken ”wholesale” and plastered onto an African scenario. This way of thinking started some time ago and Silicon Valley is just the most visible part of the iceberg.

Stepping back a bit, Africa’s destiny in the world began much earlier and changed significantly in the 1500s when the Portuguese began sailing into Africa. At that time, Africa, south of the Sahara could stand toe-to-toe with Europe in social, commercial and military prowess. The Portuguese became the most active Europeans in Central Africa and met the Kingdoms of Kongo and Ndongo, among others that were as good as they were in diplomacy, war and commerce. But the business of slavery was carried out in earnest to provide the labor necessary to conquer the new colony of Brazil.

In order to gain a foothold in the kingdoms of Benin, Kongo and Ndongo on the African western coast, a number of missionaries were sent to “Christianize” the Africans. One of the most important concepts was that “slavery was a normal part of world affairs”, a European Christian construct, a position favored by King Alfonso I, King of the Kongo and Bakongo people (1506 – 1540).

Portuguese slave traders had a plan. As the people became enlightened by Christian education, communities were convinced to rebel against Alfonso's rule. The ensuing rebellion would be used as an excuse by the Portuguese to make war against these communities, in the name of aiding Alfonso, thus creating prisoners of war who invariably added numbers to the slave trade.  Before long, Alfonso's kingdom was falling apart, his authority diminished and some areas depopulated. This was a strategy used again and again across Africa by the ‘other’, Europeans. The Industrial Revolution took this state of affairs to a higher level.

With the “Scramble for Africa” and colonialism, Africa fell behind in the “development” of the European and later American and Asian nations in “world affairs”. Globalization picked up speed, accelerated in the 20th century, due to two World Wars and electronic communication. Now, in the 21st century, globalization is spreading at break-neck speed of the Internet and the Mobile.

Today, in the post Industrial Age era, a “new” concept has emerged, the “Digital Entrepreneur”. These two words carry a different emphasis depending on whether you use the Western or African perspective. In the West, “Entrepreneur” is right now so massively important because it virtually disappeared during the Industrial Age. Before that, everyone was an entrepreneur. In Kenya, particularly, almost everyone is STILL an entrepreneur. It is the “Digital” that is new. This means that in the future, formal employment especially in ICT will increasingly be seen as an option to an “informal” vocation or a transition to self-employment.

But this is not spread evenly across Africa. Canal+, a French media company, held conference in Nairobi where I participated as one of the organizers. Delegates from French speaking countries in Africa were invited to understand how ICT hubs are spreading throughout Africa and the possibility of this happening in their countries in particular. As we talked about “thinking outside the box”, it became clear that, most of French-speaking Africa lags behind their English speaking communities in digital entrepreneurship because the France-based education system follows the “old” paradigm of standardized learning, where innovation is not encouraged. An entrepreneur needs critical thinking, persistence, adaptability, creativity and initiative. This is not helped much by the fact that most of western technological ideas are shared on the Internet in the English language.

What is the way forward for the future of digital technology in Africa?

Let me give you an example. Africa is still portrayed in Western Media as if we were in the 16th century. Adding post-colonialism and the “international aid” guilt–trip, Africans are relegated to handouts that come in many forms, while extraction of both minerals and human resource continue. Africans consume the messaging that they must take what they are given and become entrapped by the Western ideas and ideology. This leads to a collective low esteem and apathy, creating passive people who are absent from conversations that affect them on the world stage.

There are things we as Africans can learn from our history when looked at from a Western World view. But, as Minna Salami, an African Writer said, “these images are so negative, that it takes us tremendous effort to not see ourselves through the eyes of this distortion”. It will take a lot of work and some time for the Western World view of Africa to clear.

In this digital era, African entrepreneurs need to see themselves clearly, consider a different, bolder perspective as they strike out to make a mark in this world. We need to re-invent Africa and use digital technology, the Mobile and the Internet, to do it. Just like how most of Europe is defined through the Industrial Revolution (“German Engineering”, etc.) perhaps African communities can be defined and re-imagined through digital technologies.

What are some of the lessons, implications and changes in mindset that you think are necessary?

Allow me to propose three lessons that we need to take from our history. First, we must remove our Western colored view of Africa and look at it in a new way in order to create a conducive environment. Individualism and liberalism dominates the world view for a lot of people in the West. To use identity as an example, in the West it would go like this; I think therefore I am. So whoever you believe yourself to be, everyone around you must address you in this self-perceived identity.

We must recognize the African base of social outlook as Communalism. So one’s identity is defined thus; I relate therefore I am. Most Africans have multiple identities. Who your grandmother knows you as is not how people at the office know you. This immediately informs the differences in approaching the identification of innovative solutions. For the West, innovation stems from solving an individual problem – Uber, Instagram, the iPhone and so on.

The basis is of communal nature. So many “fintech” apps start by lending money to individuals, I expect these to grow into platforms around social banking. In Kenya in particular, MPesa was built to solve a social group problem. In fact, its evolution under Safaricom came because mobile subscribers had found an innovative way to transact using a service that allows one to buy airtime for another – Sambaza. Subscribers began “sambaza-ing” each other airtime as a way to pay for goods and services. Airtime became virtual money and was used as such. Mpesa came an cannibalized Sambaza. To this day, there are only two actions that cost noting on the Mpesa network.

Second, the initial innovations in Silicon Valley focused on ‘silicon’. It was used in the production of electronic components and microcircuits.  Some of the companies involved were Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory and Fairchild Semiconductor, from whom Intel and AMD among others were spawned. These innovations were taking place in the Santa Clara Valley in San Francisco. It is these innovators who “developed a culture of openly denying the hierarchical culture of traditional corporations. People remained faithful to each other, but not to the employer or the industry.” This is Silicon Valley.

We need to recognize this because nowhere in Africa, as yet, is Silicon being used to innovate in products. Africans are joining this innovation space during the digital and more correctly, the Mobile Era. So “Digital” is a better description of African innovation. Also, though “savannah” is used to depict an African landscape, it is not an African word. It is from a Native American community for the grasslands (prairies) they inhabited. We should call the grasslands of Africa with the name that East Africans have given it? Nyika!

Renaming, even though a small task, is an exercise that forces us to look at the African innovation space without biases. We can then learn from any other innovative spaces from around the world and copy what is necessary, build what infrastructure we need and innovate for Africa first. Only then can uniquely African knowledge and financial investment grow in an environment that is in itself unique. We in Kenya should take advantage of the four milestones I noted earlier, in order to make the digital innovation space grow and spread across Africa; easy access to the Internet, almost no restriction to innovation, a lead in mobile finance and fintech, and a growing tech ecosystem.

Third, it has been noted that most of the ideas which come from Africa and venture on the international stage have a ‘local” problem at its core. While this is very well and good, the current “Silicon Valley” thinking in Africa is part of the problem, causing the ideas we see coming out of our innovation space to be mostly copies of what we see in America and other places with the only new ingredient “how can it work here?” However, Ushahidi was an example of a global problem solved first locally. There was no other solution like it, nor would there have been one since the conditions for its creation were unique to Kenya and other “developing” economies.

Africa, in space and time must take charge of its destiny using digital technology to take advantage of the confluence of a young and growing demographic, an increasingly multi-polar political world and all the advantages of not being saddled with old population and archaic technological systems. Mobile money in Kenya has not been hampered by the credit and debit card networks. If anything, they are now playing catchup.

Kenya, for one is the birthplace of Mobile Money. Globally, what will be next thing that comes from this side of the world?

It is in fintech and it is Pan African. Beyond that I am sworn to secrecy. :-D

This article first appeared in the book, Digital Kenya and has been edited for clarity.

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Last updated: March 30, 2022, 7:39 p.m.