Konza technology city – Africa’s Silicon Savanna cannot work, at least not in the present concept form. It is premised on the idea that a well-planned area with decent buildings will attract IT talent and people will be able to come and do wonders with technology until we export the value and become a huge technology hub in Africa. An assumption cannot be more false.
Entrepreneurs do not crop up from nowhere and decide to relocate to a new town because it has new buildings, least of all, technology entrepreneurs. These can indeed work from anywhere. Infact, many budding ones only need a laptop and decent internet speeds and they are good to go.
For any new city like a Konza to coalesce, there must be overwhelming pull factors and glass buildings are not good enough to attract them. Knocking off the success of Silicon Valley is about more than just looking and sounding the same. The government must understand who techpreneurs really are and how they thrive. Big office spaces and nice parks are not prerequisite to software development, or Business Process Outsourcing. Google or Facebook did not originate from a fancy office block somewhere christened silicon something. What made Microsoft or RIM or Nokia grow into a large company has little to do with physical infrastructure. The government seems challenged in its understanding technology entrepreneurship.
Other things, not buildings, drive great technology startups. Actually, many hackers love and thrive in some kind of chaos. It’s a unique culture. It is not a business or corporate-like culture, not a clean business and corporate environment like that planned in Konza. Infact, these nicely manicured environments corporatism and bureaucracy choke startups.
Second, there is no money to do Konza. I mean venture and seed capital for the startups. Almost all the big tech hits were funded at their nascence. The determined founders of Yahoo, Intel, Cisco and others borrowed capital to start their companies. Some seed investment was needed to create the first product. This seed money alongside mentorship comes from other rich techpreneurs, in return for equity in the new companies. These are mostly people who have made lots of money from selling technology companies and therefore are enthusiastic to take more risks by investing in new companies. Eventually, their investments pay off when the companies become Microsofts or Samsungs. I doubt any of those driving this Silicon Savanna idea have any of their own money invested in any technology company. They likely have most of their money in real estate and have no stocks of electron nature. Companies don’t get such seed money from banks. That is why the Silicon Valley was not born around Wall Street in New York or around Canary Wharf in London. These areas have money, but different type of money – bank money. Problem is bank money is not angel money and banks don’t understand software, hardware or applications.
This brings me to another point about banks, and infrastructure at large. Any aspiring internet entrepreneur in this country will tell you that services as basic as credit card processing are non-existed, or very poor at best in this country. Local Kenyan banks have not developed any of these. How can we create companies that we expect to pay or be paid online by customers overseas without such basic financial infrastructure? Moreover, companies in this country have little regard for infrastructure sharing. E.g Every bank wants to have their own ATM outlets. There is no regulation on infrastructure sharing and therefore the costs of business operation are prohibitively high. Internet service in this country is also ridiculous. The fibre optic cable did not help for reasons that many cannot understand. Or shall we build an internetless Konza? What legislations do we have in place? Is our intellectual property law sufficient? Is there any cyber legislation?
Our government loves to outsource jobs to foreigners and disregards local talent and manpower. Starting from representation at the International Criminal Court to masterplanning of the Konza city, foreign manpower is employed. And this lack of trust with the locals is not restricted to lawyers or architects; many local IT firms have lost government contracts to HP, IBM, Oracle or other big companies because the government dismissed them for lack of capacity. How shall we create capacity if we do not believe in ourselves? Who will buy the goods and services of the Konza technology firms if the government cannot be the first client? It would be ironical to believe that the same government that decries lack of capacity of our local professionals is now on an about turn to trust the same local people to do big things, like create big companies to rival Microsoft or Google or Facebook or HP. If we cannot convince or otherwise attract young Kenyan entrepreneurs to set shop in Konza, then we must forget shelve the allure that any serious Google or Microsoft or other BPO company will set up office in Konza.
We have the desire to create a silicon valley but we fall short of the pot of factors that bear a successful silicon valley. Infact, we should be cautious to note that as much as Silicon Valley has contributed to the success of America, the country has been unable to replicate the Silicon Valley phenomenon anywhere else apart from California. Other countries, with far much more resources have tried with little success, including the U.K, Brazil and Russia. Even Malaysia, with its Cyberjava has failed to achieve the earlier vision. It has become something in housing and office blocks that a few people use during the day and a ghost town at night with little hope of a full cycle activity. Worth noting is the fact that CyberJava exists in this small scale albeit deliberate government efforts in human capital development after the 1960s. This long drawn effort has borne little success and Cyberjava today is a whisper of its original promise.
Silicon Valley is more than a collection of office blocks and incubation clusters. It is made of people – of seed investors, venture capitalists, researchers, entrepreneurs and technologists – and people are what Konza needs the most, not buildings.
Ultimately, a few people and companies may relocate due to the hype of course but nothing as serious to consider calling a silicon anything.
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