A paradigm shift is underway in Kenya. New innovations are destroying old ways of doing business, and smart young startup entrepreneurs are at the forefront of this quiet but historic transformation. Teams of skilled developers and programmers have sprung up in innovation hubs, incubators and accelerators across the country to build information and telecom solutions that capitalize on the country’s mix of challenges and opportunities. At the same time, we have seen a number of spinoffs of Kenya’s unique entrepreneurial revolution reach across Africa and into other corners of the world, attracting global recognition for the country.
Digital Kenya addresses the many different aspects of these technological changes, innovations and entrepreneurial activities, including policy formulation, impediments and opportunities. It is the first book to chronicle the digital entrepreneurship revolution in Africa and describe how it has emerged in the face of high unemployment rates, poverty, lack of technological infrastructure and disparate cultural interpretations of entrepreneurialism and risk-taking. In this context, the book heralds a new way of thinking about and understanding emergent opportunities in the digital world and how best to exploit them in the face of significant developmental challenges.
We also show how the paradigm shift that facilitated Kenya’s digital revolution was the result of a number of overlapping factors. For one, India’s experience and policy framework served as a benchmark and source of inspiration for growth in the face of real challenges. As in India, innovators in Kenya learned that information and communications technology (ICT) has great potential to help propel the country out of unemployment and poverty. The percentage of Kenyans in gainful employment, compared with those actively seeking employment, has been estimated at 40 percent. The World Bank reported that of the Kenyan 800,000 youth (aged 15–35) that join the labor market every year, only 50,000 secure a job. Some 70 percent of them are unemployed.
But rather than view youth unemployment as the ticking time bomb it is often described as, a number of innovators have used the platforms created by ICT as a strategy to absorb large numbers of well-educated unemployed youth and thus to contribute to economic growth. Digital Kenya reviews the many different ways this was achieved and the challenges faced along the way.
In addition, we describe the development of pro-entrepreneurialism policies and partnerships in Kenya. A simple five-point policy became a key driver of the shift—focusing on the development of ICT infrastructure, leveraging of ubiquitous mobile platforms to build applications, creation of local content, building of human resource capacity, development of public-private partnerships, and creation of employment opportunities for the growing youth population—with the result that Kenya’s policy environment has slowly become a conduit for successful ICT development.
The laying of the first fiber-optic cable on the Eastern Seaboard of Africa, the TEAMS cable, was another crucial step and heralded a new chapter for cheaper telecommunication access. With it, opportunities using mainstream Internet access were created, such as subsidizing broadband for all universities and creating start-up hubs where entrepreneurs had access to high-speed Internet.
Soon new web applications were being created. M-Pesa, a money-transferring app, capitalized on the fact that only 5 percent of the Kenyan population had access to bank accounts and created a solution that revolutionized citizens’ financial freedom. The post-election violence of 2007–2008 also brought some unexpected innovation when a small group consisting of concerned tech entrepreneurs began to collect eyewitness reports of violence from emails and text messages and upload them to Google Maps, giving rise to Ushahidi—Swahili for “testimony” or “witness”—a groundbreaking information-gathering, visualization and interactive mapping tool that is now used around the globe and was recently deployed during the U.S. elections. Ushahidi, along with M-Pesa, changed the minds of even the doubters that it was possible for innovation to stimulate world-class entrepreneurialism in Kenya.
Read More: Newsweek