There has been a silent technology race in Africa in recent years between Nairobi, Johannesburg-Cape Town, Lagos and Accra to settle which capital will emerge as the continent’s Digital Mecca.
Seems Nairobi had edged ahead and was gaining momentum after it was dubbed the “Silicon Savannah.” Nairobi got its boost from the dizzying success and global ripple effect of M-Pesa, the mobile money transfer service; the development of Ushahidi, easily the world’s leading free online crisis-mapping platform; and iHub, one of the most talked-about innovation lounges on the continent.
Johannesburg, Lagos and Accra beat Nairobi in the range of digital innovations that make money. But Nairobi takes the biscuit when it comes to the sexy stuff that the media love.
Not surprisingly, the other capitals consider Nairobi a technology conman. When, following the March 4 General Election, the Independent Electoral Boundaries and Electoral Commission (IEBC) biometric voter registration and result transmission systems failed spectacularly before the eyes of the world, the Nairobi critics got an opportunity to exact their revenge.
The IEBC shambles, the West Africans chortled, was evidence that Nairobi was a fake tech champion.
However, the contenders in this technology race are driven by the same forces, and to understand this is to comprehend what happened in Kenya.
Nairobi has three streams that shape innovation in the city — and the country. The first is an international society, built around the vast network of the UN agencies, the dozens of multinationals and international media houses headquartered in Kenya’s capital, the huge expatriate community, and the East African intellectual and professional elite who are in and out the city, making Nairobi the regional hub.
Most of the innovation competitions, the contracts that drive the technology sector in Kenya, and the partnerships that have made iHub a star, are fuelled by this universe. It is Kenyan mostly in terms of geographical location, but is driven by globalisation. The leading technology outfits in South Africa, Lagos, and Accra are all propelled by largely the same dynamics.
Then there is the second stream, the “Second Republic” innovation movement, deeply Kenyan in content, drawing lessons from best practice in the world, but fuelled primarily by the reforms of the past 10 years under President Mwai Kibaki.
From here, things like Equity Bank blossomed, the media houses modernised, the Nairobi Stock Exchanged boomed, exciting music groups and filmmakers were born, and there was an avalanche of nimble medium-sized companies. Some sections of the government — the Information Ministry, the Kenya Revenue Authority, the Central Bank of Kenya, and the IEBC in its infancy — got a seat in this stream.
Then there is the third stream, “Old Kenya”, trapped by the dead hand of bureaucracy, ancient prejudices, plagued by inequality, violent crime, corruption, terrorism, and dirty tricks politics.
Players in one stream can reinvent themselves and rise, or lose their groove and slump. In the case of the IEBC, it seems to have slumped and fallen back into Old Kenya.
This race has not been reset… at least not yet.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group’s executive editor for Africa & Digital Media. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @cobbo3