Kenyan Tech Ecosystem-Where all the Other Parts are pointing Fingers at the Developers (Part I)
After writing this post which brought in a bit of controversy going by the comments, it is time to look at the broader picture of Kenyan tech scene. We all can agree that it is not just a scene but an ecosystem where different players make it whole. In my understanding ecosystem can only function smoothly and succeed if each individual part is carrying out its mandate. At the moment there is that attitude that things are not going right because the developers don’t have the right ideas or focusing on the wrong direction. Going with that, it means all the other people are doing their part to the extent that the only people letting them down are the developers.
Ok..the Kenyan tech ecosystem consist of Investors, incubation centers, Government (CCK, ICT Board), Publishers (bloggers and Journalists), Techpreneurs/Developers and the consumers. I will leave the developers out of this post because according to some, they are the ones failing the system.
I will start with the Government. I think the Government is distracted by two things and in the process missing the point, the the near obsession with the thinking that things will be all sugar and honey once Konza City is completed and them being in bed with multinationals. I have no doubt Konza City will be great, especially if they manage to do all that they have promised to do. But the fact remains that at the moment it is a dry land with no single structure. Unfortunately at the moment there are existing real people running real start-ups and they need those sugar and honey stuff now. When you tell people that there will be tax incentives at Konza City then why don’t you just do it now? There are many things Government should be doing now to ensure that it is easier to do business as a start-up in Kenya but that is not the case.
The Government main thinking is based on either partnering with Multinationals, or giving them business or making awesome environment for them. I have no problem with all that but I have a problem when I see small businesses which employ majority of Kenyans being ignored by the Government. At the end the small local businesses are here to stay no matter what, while Multinationals can pull out at any time they feel like. The recent example is InMobi pulling out of Africa. If Inmobi was started in Kenya by a Kenyan, there is noway it would pull out. But the Government is not seeing that. Going back from the beginning, the Government initial ideas was to market Kenya as Business Outsourcing Center. You know what that means, it means the country is marketed as a place for low skilled people who can only work as data entry clerks in data centers..And the main word there is “work(employed)” and not starting a business.
Then came Konza City and up to now if you ask the people marketing Konza City, what it is in it for people and they will tell you that the likes of HP, Microsoft, Nokia will be there.. Then I ask myself so what? They are already here. I want to hear people talking about Pesapal, Cellulant, Virtual City, Techweez, Xema and Symbiotic. These homegrown ventures, should be nurtured to grow to their full potential.
Next is the incubators and The tech spaces. iHub is the famous of them all but iHub was never started as an incubation center but a place for ideas and research. Even up to date I don’t think iHub is incubation center and it is the reason why mLab East Africa was started. Having said that iHub still represent the face of them all. I like the work being done by Nailab, I think they coming up strongly. I can say the same of 88mph. Actually if it is a matter of comparing all these places, all the start-ups at the 88mph have either been acquired or have some sort of investment. If it is about money worth, you would argue that the 88mph is much better for the start-ups than the other tech spaces around. That is that, but are these tech spaces really helping the start-ups? What is their primary role?
My honest view is that incubation and tech spaces have done a lot of good for the industry and the start-ups which use them. At this point for example if you have a major tech event, you would not run out of a place to host it and in most cases for free. It is the reason that we now have so many tech talks. Of course, you know some people have come out to criticize the tech talks but that is a story for another day.
Do I believe that all the incubation centers and tech spaces are angels? Nope. The people who own or run the incubation centers and tech spaces are very connected people but I don’t think they are doing enough to pass that connection to the start-ups working in their spaces. The thing is there are people out there who have invested a lot of money to make the tech spaces run, but unfortunately, the same people seem not to be willing to invest in the start-ups at the same scale. Actually not even a fraction of the same scale. So you ask yourself what is the magic trick and why is it not being passed down.
Next is the Investors, and the song would be- Ooooh too much money around .. oooh no ideas..smh. Lets start with the too much money nonsense. In my last post I asked where that too much money was and who is getting it. Since when did giving $25K in the hackthons become too much money. Just go back a little bit, and ask how many hackathons and competitions have been hosted in Kenya in the last two years. And how do you rate an Hackathon organized by Nokia to attract more apps in the Nokia Apps store or by Samsung to fill the Samsung apps store or Google Play. If a company like Nokia organize hackathon, I look at it as marketing activity meant to attract people to their platform. That is different with the global competition like the one they normally host and at the end they invest in the winner. Two years ago, Virtual City won one million dollars from Nokia and it came in as investment. That is money to be counted but the other hackathons they have been doing around since, have been for the purpose of attracting the developers to their platform. So if I am not wrong in the last two years we have had less than or around 20 hackathons and competitions in Kenya. In all those cases the winners usually walk away with at most $25K. The runs up usually get something, $10K or $5K. For that let say each competition the winners walk away with $50K. So take $50K and multiply it with 20 and you get $1million, if you add the money Virtual City won from Nokia, then the total come up to $2million…oooooh that is too much money. Seriously that is less than what biNu from Australia have raised to scale up.
The other notion that there is no good ideas around is more laughable. If there is no idea in Kenya, then it means there is a big opportunity for anybody to take advantage of the space. But before we go there why are the Kenyan Apps winning competitions out there if they are not good. My recollection tells me that some of the people saying there are no good ideas in Kenya have been judges in some of these competitions. The reality is, local apps have won competitions beyond even Kenyan borders. We saw Virtual City win the Nokia Challenge, we saw AroundMe by James Mwai win the Nokia create for millions competition the following year. We saw a number of Kenyan apps winning Google Android developers Challenge. If all these ideas were that big crap how comes judges keep on thinking that they are good? Or is the time to start saying that the competitions and Hackathons are using crappy judges!
My main point is that there is something else in play here and not the lack of good ideas..
In Part two, we will look at the roles of Publishers, Mentors and the Supporting casts like Mobile phone Makers, Mobile Network operators.