Silicon Savannah: Government Subsidized Innovation

Nairobi’s Ngong Road has become a sort of Wall Street or concentrated Palos Altos. Start-ups and IT labs have situated themselves up and down the area. It is no wonder Nairobi has been nicknamed “Silicon Savannah.” In a country known for its safaris, tea and coffee, Kenya’s technological hub is beginning to parallel its Western counterparts. In 2010, technology exports were at 360 million dollars, shattering the $16 million from eight years prior. The country boasts about having the most popular mobile pay app (M-Pesa), as well as other very valuable applications that help with everyday life: iCow teaches farmers how to take care of their livestock, while mFarm permits farmers to have a direct influence on the market and direct prices. Huduma warrants a direct interaction between the government and the people: citizens relay maintenance issues with public services (ex: potholes) and can track the time it takes for a problem to be resolved.

The Economist cites Bitange Ndemo*, the former permanent secretary to the ministry of information and communication technology (ICT), as a major cause and motivator in the technological turnaround. He was elected in 2005. Erik Hersman, a tech guru in Nairobi, speaks highly of Ndemo, viewing him as an instigator of major governmental and citizen support for the technological revolution.

Ndemo opened governmental data to the public, put government money into the IT research and incubators found on Ngong Road, and made high-speed Internet a reality. Prior to his election, Internet depended on satellites and was very expensive. At the time (2008-2009), twenty-three of the fifty-four countries in Africa were all using the same fiber-optic cable for high-speed Internet. Ndemo linked up with a cable from the United Arab Emirates- the first of four, underwater Internet cables. As of 2015, almost 70% of Kenyans have Internet access.

Others note that the success of Kenya is its good education system, which rivals its successful counterpart- South Africa. Ndemo subsidized the Internet access for schools, making sure universities got unlimited Internet facility.

Ndemo states “We have so many problems that can also be opportunities,” to explain the technological boom. When looking at their most successful applications- mPesa, mFarm, iCow- we see them all as direct solutions to a larger problem. MPesa got many Kenyans into using banks, mFarm got farmers in control of their business, while iCow increased success rates. By supporting technology, the government is able to support local businessmen and coordinate subsidized benefits.

The government also gains from Internet based applications. As noted, Ndemo put all governmental data up for the public, to counter the notorious corruption that once existed. This being said, there isn’t success without opposition. Many Kenyan officials have been against change. Despite this, Ndemo mapped the road to realization.



*Moringa School Board Member


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