Innovation in Africa: Upwardly mobile
Monday, August 27, 2012
VISITORS to Kenya’s capital are often horrified by the homicidal minibuses called matatu. They swerve around potholes, seldom signal and use their iffy brakes only at the last second. They are therefore an ideal subject for a video game, which is why Planet Rackus, a Nairobi start-up, released “Ma3Racer” last year. Each player uses his mobile phone to steer a matatu down the street. The (unrealistic) goal is to avoid pedestrians. Within a month, a quarter of a million people in 169 countries had downloaded the game.
Planet Rackus is one of hundreds of start-ups that have sprung up in Nairobi over the past couple of years. They are part of a quiet tech boom in Kenya, a country better known for coffee and safaris. In 2002 Kenya’s exports of technology-related services were a piffling $16m. By 2010 that had exploded to $360m. To its boosters, Nairobi is “Silicon Savannah”.
However, it differs from its silicon sisters in one crucial regard. From the start, its tech firms have designed their products for mobile phones rather than computers. Kenya is still a poor country; few of its people own laptops. But there are 74 mobile phones for every 100 Kenyans, well above the African average of 65. And nearly 99% of internet subscriptions in Kenya are on mobile phones.