Francisco Noguera

Friday Roundup 6/24/11: Pivot25 and East Africa’s “Venturesome” Consumers

“… It turns out that the U.S. has a particularly large number of people who are willing to do something like hand over their precious data to a brand-new startup [Dropbox]-the kind of people the economist Amar Bhidé calls ’venturesome consumers.’” -Surowiecki

The quote comes from a fascinating New Yorker piece written by James Surowiecki, which offers a fresh and novel look at what makes innovation happen. It’s not only about creative types that come up with innovations like Dropbox. It’s also about an attitude embraced by consumers, a willingness to give it a try and see how new technologies can improve their lives -even if doing so puts a very valued asset at risk.

I’m in Kenya at the moment, a place where you’ll find plenty of “venturesome consumers”. M-PESA is to Kenyans what Dropbox is to Americans. If putting an Excel spreadsheet on the cloud sounds risky to a business person in the West, just think about giving away cash, the money that has been carefully saved to send to family in the village, and getting a text message in return. M-PESA is a brilliant innovation, but the praise goes just as much to the brave consumers who took the leap and gave it a shot, who made drastic changes in their habits, saw that it worked, and then told others about it.

And so an idea spread… story after story, M-PESA now counts 15 million users and 28,000 points where they can exchange cash for SMS.

Now, let’s turn the M-PESA page and use it as an example of a broader trend. Kenyans are entrepreneurial and risk-taking; they’re willing to use their phones for more than talking; they enjoy a fierce competitive battle among mobile operators, causing prices to drop day by day; they can buy a brand new Android phone for $100 and enjoy more and more affordable data plans. Sounds like the kind of place you want to be if you’re at all literate in programming and application development, right? Well last week this community came together for the first Pivot25, an app developers reunion and competition that showcased solutions for many of the challenges faced by Kenyans and East Africans.

PIVOT25: East Africa’s Biggest Mobile Tech Event from Pivot25 Conference on Vimeo.

You can go to the website and see what some of these innovations were about. They ranged from accounting solutions for small businesses to education apps aimed at involving parents in their children’s schooling, to empowering farmers through more and better information about their crops and markets. 25 entrepreneurs pitched their ideas in front of an audience of fellow entrepreneurs, potential investors, and even policy makers. In between pitches, panel sessions explored the elements of the ecosystem that is being formed around tech entrepreneurship in East Africa. Efforts like mLab, an offspring of Nairobi’s iHub, were among the interesting innovations presented, investors discussed the state of VC and angel funding in east Africa, and ministers heard from the private sector what is needed to make this innovation ecosystem grow further, build on its early successes, and really bring about a new industry with plenty of room and clear rules for everyone.

It was inspiring to see this level of sophistication in a place like Nairobi. Everything about the conference made me feel as if I were in Santa Clara, California–the crisp graphic design, sharp videos and presentations, and a buzz of collaboration and deal making that was truly palpable. Most interestingly, I think I was among the few ex-pats in the room. This was not a conference full of experts and investors with return flights the following morning. This community lives and breathes in Nairobi, in Kisumu, in Kampala and Dar es Salaam. It found a home around the iHub, and is now working together to turn that collaboration into sustainable enterprises, ventures that grow by responding to local needs.

M-PESA and Ushahidi were the first innovations springing out of Nairobi for the rest of the world to adopt. Venturesome East Africans, communities like iHub, programs like mLab, and events like Pivot25 make more stories like these all the more likely to occur again.

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