Finally Kenyans are starting to ask the right questions about our ICT sector and its future. In the last few days there have been a number of debates online with a number of issues coming up. At the end some of the big shots in Kenyan tech decided that it would be better if we have physical debate beyond 140 characters on twitter. Mbugua Njihia raised a number of crucial questions a head of the beyond 140 characters debate at Nailab on Friday here. But as I have seen with many Kenyans techpreneurs, we try to sugar coat what we are saying instead of calling it as it is. The first question Mbugua asked is “are we building an ecosystem the wrong side up?”
The first is that we might be getting the approach wrong and building an ecosystem the wrong side up. This can be aptly summed up by – “If you want to build a great soccer team, invest in great players, not a massive stadium”. The argument here is that we already have what it takes in-terms of infrastructure to take IT related services to the next level and the real need lies in empowering techpreneurs to create and scale innovative services – growth capital that will see them increase “exportable value”. There is also the concern of capital flight when inviting the global players in, who will create jobs but ultimately the revenue is repatriated.
Ok, it is simple, Mbugua is talking about Konza City, what is now popularly known as African Silicon Savannah. Straight to Mbugua’s point, do we need Konza city to be innovative? To be more exact does Konza city represent hype or hope, borrowing from a question presented by my Friend Mark Kaigwa during the recently concluded Mobile East Africa Conference. To go back to Mbugua’s Soccer analogy When Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea Football Club, he started by recruiting and developing new players. He went straight to buying great players like Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Solomon Kalou , Obi Mikel. With such talents on offer, Chelsea started to attract many fans, as far as places like Kenya, where you now find die hard Chelsea fans like Archer Mishale.. Almost 10 years later is when Chelsea club is discussing the issue of building a bigger stadium like the ones in Old Trafford or Emirates. Clearly we can see that Human capital comes first.
Konza city is based on the idea that well planned tech place, will attract tech talents and IT investors. Multinational Companies will rush in to build or rent office places in the city. And with that they will hire more people and the techies will do wonders with their new innovations. But to me that is more of assumption than the reality. To go back to the beginning for some rhetorical question why do we in the first place think we can replicate Silicon Valley in Kenya to the extent of calling it Silicon bla bla? According to my basic understanding, Kenya is slowly emerging as tech hub in Africa with many now considering it the place to be. Even better than South Africa. With that, somebody thought that the best way to move forward is act, borrow and even name our little tech space Silicon. Ok, my concern is not so much about the name but the issue of thinking that when you build a city you will attract all sorts of tech people including the investors. The assumption is wrong and here is the some of my reasons:
First, the basic thinking stems from the success of iHub.. Yes iHub attract all sorts of people, creative, hard core coders, researchers, publishers, investors, mentors, pretenders, spectators ..you name it. But what exactly does iHub provide these people and what would happen if you close iHub today? To me the most important factor about iHub success is Erik Hersman’s factor. Erik is a multi-talented person with interesting background. Developers trust him because he used to be a developer and his work at Ushahidi stands out. Publishers (bloggers/media) trust him because he owns successful blog with international reach www.whiteafrican.com. Investors trust his judgement because he has involved in one of the most successful piece of technology to ever come from Africa Ushahidi. Pretenders trust that one day he would make them successful too. While spectators want to go away and tell their friends that they know and hangout with Erik Hersman. At the end what people get from iHub is the validation. If you are developer and you work from iHub, people trust that you will do the work, if you are researcher and you work from iHub people trust what you say, if you are blogger and you break any news from iHub, people believe the news. The reality of this, is shown by the fact that the other innovation places like Nailab, iLabafrica have not achieved the same level of success so far. Actually Nailab and iHub started almost at the same time…….!
Secondly, some of the most outstanding applications build in the last 2 years or so have been done outside the iHub but the owners of such converge at the iHub to showcase their ideas. So many events take place at iHub to showcase what have been done elsewhere. From that you can see that some of the most innovative and creative people do their stuff somewhere else and come to iHub to show how good they are.
Thirdly, Konza might end up being a rich man’s city with the so called young developers unable to afford the cost of living around the place. With the kind of buildings, and organization expected at the place, I don’t think newly graduated young Kenyans with no jobs will be able to afford the cost of living there unless another layer of vibandas come up around there…. Without their brains, I don’t see much of the envisioned innovation coming out of the place.
The Capacity nonsense and Contracts
The second point raised by Mbugua is the issue of who has capacity to do what. The Government is not willing to give their tenders to the local Companies pointing at the lack of Capacity.
Government says we lack local capacity, yet the contracted international firms simply set up shop and poach from the very same companies that “lack the capacity”, all the while the costs for training that the local companies foot “go to waste”. High attrition rates, high costs of talent development mean growth stagnates.
It’s not about infrastructure and partnerships but more about creating local IP that has exportable value. The contracting of international companies does two things, the first is revenue repatriation and the second is it leaves us as net consumers of technology.
I can not put it better than that. Sometime it is beyond the basic understanding…the same Government which go out there trying to market Kenya as among the best Business Outsourcing places can not trust the same local companies with their tenders….smh..ok I have to stop there..sleep time, before I head to Nailab for the great debate