Njeri Rionge and Joe Mucheru, her then colleague, traveled around the most remote parts of Kenya in 1999 to research the demand for telecommunications. They found that rural communities, alive to the value of the mobile phone, represented the mass market potential for a technology that was relatively nascent in the region.
They reported back to their employer, Interconnect, that the country had a huge latent demand for information. This was well before the massive undersea cables brought broadband capacity to Africa’s east coast; well before the privatization of the crumbling national telecoms operators injected life into the moribund sector and well before the world had woken up to the potential of Africa’s appetite for technology.
Interconnect did not share their view. The two found an angel investor the following year and created Wananchi Online. It was the region’s first internet service provider to offer ‘triple play’—a new concept that combined internet, television and telephone down a single line.
The process of acquiring licenses became tangled as the company refused to slip brown envelopes into their bids. This culminated in an episode that demonstrated Rionge’s mettle. As they waited for approvals, 17 men arrived at her office with the intention of extorting a bribe. Intimidated, she told them, at length, of the need for Kenyans to do business the right way, to work with integrity. After 15 minutes, one said in Swahili, “She doesn’t get it”. They left empty-handed.
More than a decade later, Rionge and Mucheru stand among the founding members of what may be Africa’s most vibrant technology scene. Today, Nairobi is the center of a thriving community of entrepreneurs, incubators and venture capitalists; driven, first by the massive expansion and innovation in the mobile telecoms sector and then by the arrival of undersea fiber optic cables which deliver international data connectivity. Kenya has exported world-leading technology products—most famously the M-Pesa mobile money transfer system—to the rest of the world. The country has moved fast, but if anything, she says, things have gone too slowly.
“We did have a very big vision for the industry. 2000 to 2004 was an amazing time for us and we were constantly ahead of our time. A lot of the stuff we were talking about then is just now happening,” says Rionge.
Infrastructure, policy and knowledge and “understanding what this internet beast, at the time, was really about” has held back the industry.
“Today things are really different. People get it. People have moved on from thinking about connectivity to thinking about what’s going to be on the bandwidth.”
In August, IBM opened its first African research center in the city, the latest blue chip company to put its weight behind the ‘Silicon Savannah’. As the hype around Nairobi increases, Rionge warns that many entrepreneurs are struggling to take the step from great ideas to commercial businesses. That, she says, will take the community to the next level.
So many “techies” lack the commercial skills and acumen to make their ideas saleable. Rionge and her colleagues turned Wananchi into the region’s largest internet service provider, before she moved on to a senior role at the part-privatizing national phone company, Telkom Kenya. “The likes of Safaricom, the Telkoms, any of the big guys, the CEOs or the strategists need to see that there is a pool of experts or a pool of engineers who can actually develop their back office tools,” she says.
A recurring theme in her discourse is the problem of discerning noise from signal in the hype-fuelled tech space.
“You have to be careful where you’re hearing [the hype] from. If you’re hearing it from Google, they’re definitely doing it. If you’re hearing it from [business accelerator] NaiLab, it’s a different conversation. A lot of the techies I know, they’re still sitting on their grand idea and it hasn’t gone to market successfully. If you sit down, one-on-one, you can actually see it’s going somewhere. But if it’s not picked up by Google or Safaricom or Nokia, it hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s still a great idea, but there’s no uptake in the market,” she says.
Today, Rionge works with and sits on the boards of a number of successful enterprises. She has also started an incubator on Ngong Road, the city’s technology cluster, to help those with ideas to take the step to becoming businesspeople. Part of her message is that technology is not an end in itself but rather an enabler of other sectors. The successes in the African technology space have been in areas that plug gaps in the infrastructure or the market—creating solutions for the specific context of the continent. M-Pesa solved the problem of moving money in a cash-based economy with little infrastructure to support it.
Africa, with as many opportunities as it has challenges, needs entrepreneurs who can use technology as an enabler in key sectors, such as agriculture, manufacturing and education, while entrepreneurs need real applications for their grand ideas.
This is sometimes where international investors and observers fail to see the true value in the Kenyan, and wider African, technology opportunity. Measuring existing and potential successes by the experience of Silicon Valley, or other developed world technology hubs, misses the point.
“There will be people who have great ideas and grand ideas on the ground. The difference, in terms of developing them and scaling them, is whether we are creating criteria that have worked in developed markets to identify them, or whether we are going to get on the ground and recreate the criteria, so that the criteria is suitable for the local environment. That’s what’s not there. Because that local idea or local criteria is not structured yet, we continue to completely miss the opportunity. So the reengineering of the mindset in terms of the approach, I think, is what needs to take place for emerging markets or Africa.”
It is for this reason that she is cautiously critical of some of the initiatives in Nairobi, which seem to focus more on attracting international capital to the country than on building the domestic opportunity. The government’s ‘Vision 2030’ lays out an ambitious plan to greatly increase the value and depth of the IT sector. It has spawned ideas such as Konza City, a proposed development backed by Kenya’s ICT Board, which is designed to give a physical home to the country’s technological talent. Rionge is skeptical.
“That’s bricks-and-mortar. The ideas, the technology phase, are not about bricks and mortar. The investments we need are not about bricks and mortar… The bricks and mortar is really for international investors, that’s all it is. The innovators and entrepreneurs need to scale up pretty much on their own through some genius way.”
For all of her reservations, however, she is optimistic. The government support may be slightly misdirected, but it is not misguided. The city is fast becoming a hub for the entire continent and the heart of a technology revolution that is made in Africa.
“Nairobi happens to be the location but when you’re there, you’re thinking Africa. And Africa is the next economic frontier. If that is the case, you want to be in Africa, you want to be investing with Africans.”