Konza: Step too far?

Posted on March 18, 2012

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The groundbreaking ceremony at Konza Technology City is approaching, as the Kenyan government gets ready to get started on the flagship project of its Vision 2030 plan.

There is no understating the boldness of the scheme. The 5000-acre city, dubbed Kenya’s “Silicon Savannah” is a $7 billion project that it is projected will contribute 2.8 per cent of the country’s GDP by the time it is in full operation. It is central to the ambition to turn Kenya into a global ICT hub. Yet there are concerns that Kenya might be getting ahead of itself in building Konza before its ICT capabilities are up to scratch.

Kenya certainly has the potential to become an IT hub. A huge amount of available bandwidth has opened up opportunities within the country, and there is certainly an appetite within Kenya for technological innovation. Nairobi’s iHub has successfully positioned itself as the city’s nerve centre for technological innovation and start-ups as it looks to provide innovation and skills for big tech players setting up base in Kenya.

Space for innovation

The iHub offers a free technological space to its 6000 members to use equipment and share ideas, with the aim of launching sustainable tech businesses into Kenya’s growing ICT sector. It also runs the biggest tech jobs site in East Africa, while setting the example for other such hubs in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Uganda and Nigeria.

New start-ups are regularly being launched, attempting to position Kenyan innovations at the forefront of the East African technology boom. Recent start-ups incubated at the iHub include MyOrder, which provides order management and tracking via SMS, and Niko Hapa, a programme that lets mobile users update their current location through SMS rather than GPS. With big tech players such as Nokia and Qualcomm deciding to base their African operations in Nairobi, the iHub provides the connectivity between the companies and the local tech community.

“The iHub is really the centre for connectivity for the tech community,” says Erik Hersman, co-founder of the iHub. “What we do is provide a place for the startups, corporates, government and investors to find each other and interact. That’s the real strength of the space, being the nerve centre for the industry in Kenya. A lot grows out of this, including new businesses, jobs and apps.”

An incubation stage is provided by m:lab, funded by World Bank subsidiary infoDev. In the same building as the iHub, the lab performs a facilitative role in introducing mobile technology developers to investors, ensuring that breakthrough mobile innovations can be turned into sustainable business going forward.

Kenyan applications

Kenya has already produced its fair share of impressive software developments that indicate there is a huge amount of potential within the country. I will not even get into discussing the much-mentioned M-Pesa, a mobile money platform which was the first of its kind when launched in Kenya. “M-Pesa is part of the lure that brings the idea of Silicon Savannah to life,” says Affrinovator partner Mark Kaigwa, who says barriers to entry into the tech sphere have been lowered in the country. “You name it, they’re popping up in Nairobi right now.”

One such start-up is Ushahidi, a non-profit tech company specialising in developing free and open source software that allows users to map and visualise anything from violence hotspots to healthcare facilities in any given country. It was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election discord in early 2008, and now has more than 22,000 deployments in 154 countries.

Ushahidi’s Heather Leson said that the platform and its deployers could play a part in the sustainable development project by giving people a new and more visual way of sharing information and bettering their communities.

“Ushahidi is a software vehicle that enables people to amplify and give voice to their social change actions,” she said. “The deployers are the real story. Their desire to change their community and world musters mission with multiple online tools. Ushahidi is one of those platforms.   The role we have is to enable these community members to use our tools and use our social capital to share their story.”

Previous deployments of the software have included crisis-mapping in post-earthquake Haiti, documenting snow removal efforts in Washington D.C. and reporting violence in tumultuous Syria.

Application development has also proved hugely helpful in agriculture. Farmers using the Kenyan-developed iCow have seen their incomes increase substantially, demonstrating the ability of mobile technology to increase agricultural production.

An SMS and voice-based application for small-scale dairy farmers in Kenya, iCow helps farmers trace the oestrous cycles of their cows, also offering valuable tips on cow breeding, animal nutrition, milk production and gestation. It was winner of the “Apps 4 Africa” award in 2010. Users of the application have seen their incomes increase by 42 per cent, with milk retention increased by 56 per cent. The application has an 82 per cent retention rate for farmers that have been using it since June. The success of iCow demonstrates the ability of mobile applications to improve farming incomes, with 80 per cent of Kenyans relying directly or indirectly on farming. With the number of mobile phone users in Kenya increasing by 4.8 per cent to 26.5 million in the last recorded quarter, the potential for applications to provide information to more remote outposts is clear.

Overreach

Yet technological success stories and talk of turning Kenya into an ICT hub for East Africa are not the whole story. Konza may be a brave attempt at revolutionising the sector, but many feel that it should not be the first step on the road to a booming tech sector. Local interest in investment in Konza was low. Though the government had launched a media campaign aimed at persuading local companies to invest in the project, early signs are that this has not been a success, confirming fears raised by Ministry of Information and Communications Permanent Secretary Bitange Ndemo as long ago as October that local investors were reluctant to put funds in. Of the initial 500 acres, only 40 per cent of space was taken up by local investors, and there is no sign that this has changed, perhaps suggesting they have misgivings about the likely success of the project.

A recent poll on social media suggested mixed reactions to the scheme. Some feel that Kenya should not be focusing on building a technological city when it had still not fully built a solid skills base. Approximately a quarter of companies who responded to the Julisha Monitoring and Evaluation Survey, conducted by the Kenya ICT Board at the end of last year, said they were not satisfied with the quality of professionals produced by Kenyan universities and colleges. Applications systems analysts and software developers are the professions where capable staff is most lacking, with 45 percent of respondents saying they were difficult of very difficult to find. Karanja Macharia, co-founder and CEO of Mobile East Africa, believes that Kenya should focus on producing tech “players” before it builds their “stadium”.

Building the players

Lack of satisfaction with Kenyan ICT professionals is certainly a problem, because if this situation is allowed to continue then Konza will merely prove a base for multinational companies to hire foreign staff and repatriate any profits. These fears have increased the pressure on Kenyan educational institutions to produce graduates with the relevant skills to take the opportunities provided.

These institutions have taken the blame for the failings of Kenyan techies. “Consistency of curriculum was a common theme, with lack of guidelines emphasised,” the Julisha report noted. “The watered-down value of certifications and lack of market-relevant courses in some educational institutions were other themes.” Part of the problem may be a lack of experience faculty within the technological education system, with it being difficult for educational institutions to match private sector pay and thus attract the most capable teachers. Many with the most advanced skills choose to leave the country and as yet there is little evidence of highly-skilled IT professionals locating to Kenya to fill the gap.

Steps have been taken to address these problems. Bondo University College was established by the government in 2009 and its forward-thinking technological experts are determined to change the mindsets of students and allow them to play a key role in Kenya’s technological development.

“We want to get into the realm of actually building the technology”, says Dr Kefa Rabah, who runs the BSc course in Computer Science and Communications Engineering. Rabah believes that Kenyans need to change the way they perceive technology. “We are being fed smart technology and we don’t know about it,” he says. “We want to change the way we perceive technology. We can do it. That is the way we want to go as Kenyans.”

Meanwhile, the Kenya ICT Board has joined forces with Carnegie Mellon University to design a definitive examination for Kenyan software developers. The new exam, which will be piloted in the next 15 months and go into full production within two years, will test graduating software developers on their practical capabilities to enter the job market.

Philip Miller, of Carnegie Mellon, says that a new internationally-recognised certification would help Kenya avoid the example of India, which he said had produced thousands of software developers that were simply not up to the job. The initial aim of to certify approximately 1000 software developers every year, though eventually Miller hopes to be training more. How many are certified, however, depends solely on the capabilities of those who take the examination. “I have every reason to believe that we can train and certify plenty of people,” he says. “But people who certify will do so by demonstrating their competency to write software. You have a very clear standard and then people can measure up to it or not.”

“We want an exam that tests skills that big companies actually need. People have to have confidence that everything is fair,” says Miller. “If we have got something good the companies will have it.”

Kenya certainly has got something good, it just remains to be seen whether Konza Technology City is too big a step too soon, or whether the grassroots can catch up in time.

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