NAIROBI, Kenya — Along Nairobi’s dusty Ngong Road, so many start-up incubators and IT labs have popped up that the busy neighborhood has been nicknamed “Silicon Savannah.”
Techies, geeks and innovators race one another to come up with the next big thing. They rush from meeting to meeting, work late, skip weekends. Every other day there’s a pitch night for tech start-ups, a creative Web workshop, or a meeting of mobile app developers.
The result is a surge in innovative Kenyan apps, most designed to work with the not-so-smart phones most Kenyans can afford.
FOR THE RECORD:
The headline on an earlier online version of this article referred to the subject, Bitange Ndemo, as “Kenyan information minister.” In fact, that title is held by another Kenyan official. As the article notes, Ndemo is head of the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology.
There’s iCow, a virtual veterinary advice service that coaches small farmers on how to tend their dairy herds, avoid illness and improve production. And mFarm, which helps small farmers determine the right price for their produce, find buyers and sell it. And Huduma, which allows people to report and map government service failures such as water cutoffs and potholes, and track how long it takes to fix the problem.
Why is this happening in Kenya? People here have two words: Bitange Ndemo.
In his youth, Ndemo gave up on his country and went to study in America. Kenya was too corrupt, too undisciplined to make it, he thought. The contrast with America seemed stark. Now Ndemo, the 52-year-old head of the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, is at the heart of Kenya’s startling IT revolution.
In a region where bureaucrats often do more to constrain change than to encourage it, IT leaders here speak of Ndemo in reverential tones. Erik Hersman, co-founder of Kenya’s best-known technology hub and the son of American missionaries, says the nation’s expansion in IT couldn’t have happened without Ndemo.
“We are in that phase where the government is fully onboard with the tech revolution that is happening, but also the people, normal citizens, are really embracing change,” Hersman said.
“I have to give it to [Ndemo]. That guy, over the past five years has really pushed things along, and other people — regulatory bodies and the government itself — have seen this and gone with him on it.”
In 2006, a year after he became the director of the information ministry, Ndemo tired of the endless delays as 23 African countries bickered over plans for a joint fiber-optic cable for high-speed Internet. Instead, he linked up with one from the United Arab Emirates.
When the cable was switched on in 2009, Ndemo made sure universities got unlimited Internet capacity. He pressed the government to put money into IT research and start-up incubators. He persuaded the president to make all unclassified Kenyan government data open source — available to anyone online — a move nothing short of revolutionary on a continent where reflexive secrecy is the rule.
Part of Kenya’s advantage in the world of African IT is its good education system, with results in literacy, science and mathematics far outshining its main rival in the field, South Africa. But leaders in Kenya’s IT community say the government also got some other important things right, including subsidizing Internet access.
From fewer than 2 million Internet users five years ago, now there are more than 12 million in this East African country of 40 million people. Nearly 90% of the population has access to cellphones, according to the Government Communications Commission of Kenya.
Kenya is the undisputed world leader in mobile money (bankless transactions via cellphones), a development introduced in 2007 by cellphone operator Safaricom, which now handles more than half the world’s mobile money transfers. As Kenyans leapfrogged from no bank accounts or Internet into cellphones and mobile money, the transfers took off.
Mobile money users can pay school fees, buy items in shops, pay utility bills, buy tickets and pay for services. They can send money to a relative in a remote village without spending two days getting there and back by bus.
The system has huge implications for the developing world.
When American techies Ben Lyon and Dylan Higgins got together in a Seattle basement just over two years ago to sketch out their idea for a joint mobile money app and software business, they didn’t move to the Silicon Valley. Instead, they came to Nairobi and launched a mobile money software firm, Kopo Kopo.
“Mobile money is the payment system of the emerging market,” Lyon said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a billion-dollar business in an emerging market.”
Ndemo gets to work at 6:30 a.m., is in his office until 11 p.m. and sends out emails into the early hours of the morning. Unlike many Kenyan bureaucrats and politicians, he’s accessible, he attends weekend meetings, and he deplores wasted time.
He grew up in the remote Kisii district in southwestern Kenya, a son of a man with five wives and 40 children. His mother, the last wife, had nine children. When Ndemo was 7, his father died, triggering a bitter battle to seize his mother’s land.
“My mother was constantly under threat that they would kick her out and take the land,” he said. “Sometimes we actually had to leave school to be at home to make sure that wasn’t happening.”
There was not enough money for more than one child’s high school fees at a time, so he kept repeating his final year of primary school, he says, waiting for his turn.
Then when he graduated with good enough marks for university admission, he had to wait while younger siblings had their turns at high school. Taking a low-level clerk job at the Kenya state power company, he scraped up $3,000, enough to travel to the United States. When he wasn’t in class studying finance at the University of Minnesota, he cleaned bathrooms, washed dishes, drove trucks and delivered pizzas.
One job in 1989 involved cleaning a sports arena. The stadium owner introduced him to a friend who was chief executive of a medical technology company. Ndemo was hired as a financial systems analyst.
After returning to Kenya in 1993, he got a job at the University of Nairobi, helping computerize its systems and those of other government departments. His work in the president’s office led to his appointment as director of the Ministry of Information in 2005.
Despite Kenya’s recent tech advances, there are doubters. Ndemo says he’s even received death threats from those opposed to his efforts to make the government more accountable online.
“We are getting a lot of criticism that nobody’s going to use it, that this is silly,” Ndemo said. But he’s convinced that education, agricultural development, commerce and opportunity will explode when everyone’s online.
When IBM set up its first African research lab in August, it selected Nairobi as its base, just as Google chose Kenya for its first African operation in 2007. And when Nokia judged its 2010 global tech inventions contest, it was a Kenyan, John Waibochi, who took the million-dollar prize for his mobile phone system, Virtual City, that automates small businesses’ supply, distribution, inventory, cashless sales and receipts.
A group of Kenyans is putting together a Nairobi supercomputer cluster, among them the influential Hersman, who was raised in Sudan and Kenya, and whose Twitter handle is @whiteafrican. Hersman, who splits his time between Kenya and the United States, and others recently launched a Nairobi-based venture capital fund, the Savannah Fund, to help promising tech start-ups relevant to Africa.
There’s a vitality about Kenyan start-ups, grappling with the life-and-death problems of the developing world, that gives them an edge somehow lacking in Western apps designed to, say, find a parking space, or play a game, or shop or wake up on time.
More start-ups are brewing in iHub, a meeting place on Ngong Road where developers and designers brainstorm.
IHub manager Tosh Juma, 26, a hip young Kenyan, isn’t the kind of person you would expect to hear praising anyone in government.
“The Ministry [of Information and Communications Technology] is supportive and they recognize what we do,” he said.
Kenyans go to the polls next year and, given the influential enemies he has made, there’s no guarantee that an incoming government will reappoint Ndemo. But he says that even if he’s not in government, he has plenty to do, like spreading the IT revolution across Africa.
“People see the benefits of liberalization,” he said. “Other countries will see what we have done and will want to do it the Kenyan way.”