They Call It ‘Silicon Savannah’: What an East African Nation Teaches About Innovation

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Kenya giant mobile phone company Safaricom recently made a move that, if other technology firms in Africa follow, could have revolutionary effects. It launched a Shillings 50 million ($500,000) innovation fund.

Being in Kenya, it can fully expect that the money will be gobbled up by innovators because there are many takers in Nairobi. The way the story is told, the Kenyan capital’s meteoric rise to a global start up and innovation hub seems to have happened almost overnight. The country has in recent years got worldwide attention for churning out global innovations such as M-Pesa, the world’s most successful mobile payment system.

How did it happen though? How did a country that less than 20 years ago was struggling from the downside structural programmes, a high risk profile and weak infrastructure transform into an ideas hub and earn itself the moniker “Silicon Savannah”?

The end of the Daniel arap Moi era in 2002 and the ushering in of former President Kibaki’s government was about more than just a change of guard. 

The entire platform of the newly elected coalition was economic reform. A huge part of this was large investments in infrastructure. Better roads, stable electricity and faster internet. The first internet fibre cable landed in Mombasa in July 2009 and helped lower the cost of internet in Kenya. 

Four other cables have been installed since then and now it is possible to get an at home internet connection with television services for as low as $50 a month.

Kenya’s best known innovation is M-Pesa a mobile money transfer service that allows users to send and receive money on their mobile phones, in effect turning their phones into banks. The quick adoption of this technology and how easily the government was willing to listen and explore unchartered territory was a great signal to business. 

Build it and we will work together so they can come.  


Source: Mail & Guardian (link opens in a new window)

impact investing, infrastructure, telecommunications