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Afrocentric innovation: Kenya’s case

WHEN Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga were doing “cut and thrust” during the disputed and violence-riddled 2007 Kenyan national elections, only one undersea fibre optic cable was linking sub-Saharan Africa to the rest of the world.

Opinion by Brett Chulu

As news of post-election violence in Kenya beamed its way to a shocked world, M-Pesa, the world’s first commercially successful mass mobile money transfer system, launched in Kenya, was just a few days old.

Across the Atlantic, a relatively unknown African-American, born to a Kenyan father, was making inroads into American political limelight and would later become the first African-American US president. Just like President Barack Obama’s rise to global pre-eminence, ordinary Kenyans are beginning to make their mark on the world through simple but smart ICT-based innovations.

Ironically, the seeds of Kenya’s innovation culture were sown during the time of Kenya’s post-election violence which ended with a unity government.

Zimbabweans have had a taste of the influence of Kenyan innovation through the much talked about EcoCash, a product inspired by Kenya’s M-Pesa.  Since 2007, there has been a steady growth of innovations from Kenya many Zimbabweans are not familiar with.

As the flames of violence engulfed East Africa’s largest economy, a Kenyan female lawyer, Ory Okolloh, now with Google, posted on her blog an invitation to “techies” to crank up a code (technical jargon for writing a computer programme) that would allow people to report incidents of violence as they happened via phones and the internet.

In just two days talented programmers had successfully written a software programme accepting SMS report feeds.

As acts of violence were happening across the length and breadth of Kenya, people could send eyewitness’s accounts via SMS. That data would be transformed into a real-time map on a website showing locations where the violence was taking place. Thus was born a project called Ushahidi. This is a Swahili word for witness or testimony.

In February 2011, when a major earthquake struck Christchurch in New Zealand, Ushahidi was used to map areas of disaster, immensely assisting the coordination of recovery efforts. A few years earlier, Ushahidi had played an instrumental role in helping rescue efforts following the devastating Haiti earthquake.

Silicon Alley to Silicon Savanna
As Kenya’s unity government emerged from the rubble of post-election violence, setting out to repair resultant psychological, social and economic damage, a visionary civil servant, Bitange Ndemo, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Information and Communication set the tone for the transformation of Kenya’s ICT infrastructure.

When efforts for a joint East African economic bloc undersea fibre optic project stalled, Ndego played a key role in convincing the unity government of Kenya to go it alone. The Kenyan government gave the say-so.

An undersea fibre optic cable was brought to the shores of Kenya. With a dedicated undersea fibre cable, dependency on satellite lessened.

That strategic investment dramatically brought down ICT data transmission and distribution costs by almost a factor of 20. With an affordable fibre-based ICT infrastructure, mobile telecommunication became faster and more affordable to millions of previously excluded Kenyans.

Mobile phone penetration climbed from below 50% to just over 70% today — we are talking of close to 30 million Kenyan mobile phone subscribers currently.

With the ubiquity of cellphones and the relatively affordable sms charges, Kenyan ICT innovators started coming up with sms-dependent mass-based innovations. That wave rode on the coattails of M-Pesa’s and Ushahidi’s phenomenal successes, both leveraging on the ubiquity of mobile telephony.

As a result, a number of Kenyan start-up companies were inspired to come up with mass-based ICT-based innovative solutions to day-to-day challenges faced by Kenyans.

One of the co-founders of Ushahidi, Erik Hersman, launched iHub, a meeting place for creative minds, spanning different fields. At iHub, you are most likely to find young and ambitious Kenyans, taking advantage of ICT facilities and human resources, working together on ICT projects they hope to commercialise. The so-called iHub located on the now famous Ng’ong Road in Nairobi has been dubbed Silicon Alley, an African-flavoured miniature version of Silicon Valley.

M-Farm Limited
One of the most successful Kenyan ICT start-ups whose offices are also located on Ng’ong Road is called M-Farm Limited. M-Farm’s official website explains what their innovation called M-Farm entails: “M-Farm Ltd is a software solution and agribusiness company.

Our main product, M-Farm, is a transparency tool for Kenyan farmers where they simply  SMS the number 3555 to get information pertaining to the retail  price of their products, buy their farm inputs directly from  manufacturers at favo(u)rable prices, and find buyers for their produce.”

Here is an innovation borne out of desire to address the challenges faced by many Kenyan farmers on marketing and sourcing inputs with speed and at optimum monetary values. What farmers deep in the Rift Valley have to do to find the market that fetches them the best price for their beans is simply to SMS a number given by M-Farm.  In a matter of seconds, the farmers will receive an SMS showing them current producer prices offered by all major agricultural produce markets in Kenya.

M-Farm also allows a group of farmers to sell collectively to a ready market, thus increasing their bargaining power while increasing economies of scale. M-Farm also makes it possible for farmers to place bulk orders through the pooling of small orders which are then relayed to a suitable supplier.

From an economics viewpoint, M-Farm is reducing information-search costs by minimising information asymmetry and improving the pricing mechanism of agricultural produce markets.

Besides M-Farm there is also another SMS-based application that helps in disseminating information about crop diseases. Another SMS-based application by another start-up allows consumers to verify the genuineness of drugs before purchasing them.

Yet another SMS-based application connects potential foreign buyers of crafts made by Kenyan micro-entrepreneurs such as woven baskets. When a buyer, say, in Singapore makes a decision to purchase an item displayed, they can place an order via a website displaying the wares. The maker of the item chosen receives an SMS alert to deliver  the order to one of the many project agents dotted across Kenya.

Kenyans are taking it a step further. Led by the mercurial Ndego, Kenya is planning to transform the “Silicon Alley” culture into a fully-fledged “Silicon Valley” being dubbed “Silicon Savanna”.
Kenya has approved a US$7 billion ICT-anchored project called Konza City. Konza City will be a metropolis located 60km outside Nairobi where a network of ICT stakeholders will be grouped. The aim of the Konza City project, also going by the moniker Silicon Savanna is to create an environment that will spur ICT innovations to global heights.

Zim’s silicon alleys

Zimbabwe has the brains to develop Afrocentric ICT innovations that speak to its specific needs. What is needed is the meeting of minds from different fields to co-innovate solutions that can be commercialised using cheap platforms such as SMS, taking advantage of the projected 100% mobile phone penetration.

For instance, there is scope for an SMS-based application that helps consumers compare prices of specific items of groceries. Wouldn’t it be convenient for a Zimbabwean to SMS a list of planned groceries and get a purchasing plan that will yield the minimum cost of groceries? With so many low-quality imitations, there is also scope for an SMS-based application that can help Zimbabweans check if they are purchasing a genuine product.

This can only happen when Zimbabwean ICT nerds, social entrepreneurs, business consultants, marketers, sociologists, ethnographers, financiers, and so on meet. That’s called the Medici Effect. Strategic HR can catalyse that.

Chulu is a strategic HR consultant who has worked with both listed and unlisted companies. — brettchulu@consultant.com

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