Inventive Africa is back from Kenya and completely enthused! The blog has gone a little quite for the last two weeks, apart from a fascinating interview with Dr Tonny Omwansa, the Chairman of the Nairobi Innovation Week. (If you haven’t seen it out check it out here!) Kenya is a really fascinating country, which really highlights why we can not treat the African continent as one. Too often we talk about the continent in general (I am sure we have fallen into this trap once or twice also) instead of understanding the differences between the different regions, countries, and even ethnic groups (Whose different cultural traits can come together to strengthen a country).
Apart from the first few days at the inspirational Co-willing conference in Ukunda, in which I was mainly based in a nice hotel and it was impossible to learn about Kenyan culture or personality, I was based in Nairobi, where I spent the time to try and get to know and feel the cultural differences. And also try and understand why it seems that Kenya is embracing innovation even more than many other countries across the continent. My main experience in Africa is in West Africa, and I found immediately that my West African style interactions with people around town did not fit very well. From the taxi drivers to the security guards, the style of interaction is very different.
I can’t begin to say I am an expert on Kenya after spending a couple of weeks there and I am only talking of first impressions. This may be a little harsh to Ghana, where I have spent most my time, but I believe I also saw a different work ethic in Kenya, with people from all sectors of society taking particular pride in their work and valuing their positions. Security is taken very seriously in Kenya, with sniffer dogs used at the SGR train stations, for the trip between Nairobi and Mombasa and back, and home security very strict about sticking to the rules. The cleanliness of the Nairobi was also impressive. Ok, it was not as spotless as a Swiss city, but there was a certain neatness, with grass cut and litter not strewn everywhere and clogging the gutters. (Or course in some parts of the city it was different)
“But what has this got to do with innovation?” I hear you ask. Well, I feel that these attributes have led Kenyans to be more open to adopt new technologies. M-Pesa (Kenya’s mobile money), which of course has been one of the major themes on Inventive Africa, is being utilised far more than I even thoughts. Taxis, shops, small roadside kiosks, paying staff, and even the informal sector receive payments via M-pesa. It is very handy, When short on cash, I used it to pay two trusting taxi drivers after they had driven off. And when I fancied eating local food (which is delicious) it was easier to pay with M-pesa and than cash, as often people don’t have the correct change. The willingness of people to use this technology from all walks off life is amazing. From the politicians and high earning expats, to farmers and informal workers, everyone has embraced and utilised M-pesa.
One other major innovative breakthrough across the continent is the use of Uber and other apps in the taxi business, and drivers are really embracing it. Not all of them are happy with the amount of commission they have to give to these applications, but they realise that without them they can’t compete, and through them they can find long term customers. Most of the drivers use Uber, Taxify and now Mondo at the same time, not just sticking to one of the apps.
I see more changes coming in the transport sector in Kenya. With the frustrations regarding commission and also occasionally drivers that struggled to find their way around, there is still room in the market for another taxi app, and also the private bus system can also be made more efficient. There were already attempts to change payment methods on the buses by bringing in an oyster card style system, but the system was not ready for it. (Oyster cards are used on London transport to touch in and out of transport and automatically charge your bank account) Tuk Tuks, Boda Bodas and the train system will also benefit from innovation.
iHub is another high roller in the Kenyan innovation sphere, with a visit from Mark Zuckerberg and amazing startups such as BrCK coming out of the hub. I had the pleasure of passing by their new office in the middle on Nairobi, where I met Vincent Matinde a technology journalist, who uses iHub as his office, with many others. If you want to check out his many interesting articles on the Kenyan and African innovation sector see here. iHub seem to have a slightly different set up to the past, being a place for people to work rather than purely promote innovation and technology. It may be a necessary change in the business model that makes so many technology hubs currently unsustainable and reliant on donors.
With its tea and coffee exports (Kenya is the biggest tea exporter in the world) natural tourism, and many others, Kenya has a good foundation to build on. Their focus on technology and innovation is also giving them a chance to lead the way in Africa. Already many schools are benefitting from free tablets, and the youth are taking it upon themselves to learn how to code. But the country and can not sit back now and relax. There are still problems to solve, and it may need even more innovation to do so. Politically, Kenya still has some tension, especially with a second President swearing himself in last week in Nairobi. For the country to continue to attract foreign investors, from inside and outside Africa, and move forward, it needs to create a more stable outlook.
Kenya has massive potential, and a willingness to try new technologies and new approaches. If you are in Kenya, and have an idea or innovation, why not get in contact and becomes a guest blogger for Inventive Africa. You can contact us on Twitter @InventiveAfrica or via email, or on our Facebook page!