Is Nairobi An Emerging Mobile Technology Cluster?

What is a technology cluster?
It’s a geographical concentration of related enterprising technology firms growing around a nucleus of R&D facilities (research centers, universities), suppliers, customers and risk capital providers. Some well known clusters include Silicon Valley for electronics, New York for financial services, Detroit for automakers and Bangalore for outsourcing.

Technology Cluster

Why Nairobi?

The unprecedented growth of mobile subscribers in Kenya and indeed Africa as a whole is well documented. Empirical evidence in ITU’s 2008 report on ICT indicators in Africa show that:

Growth in Africa’s mobile sector has defied all predictions. Africa remains the region with the highest annual growth rate in mobile subscribers and added no less than 65 million new subscribers during 2007. At the beginning of 2008, there were over a quarter of a billion mobile subscribers on the continent. Mobile penetration has risen from just one in 50 people at the beginning of this century to almost one third of the population today.

With growth in mobile telephony outpacing internet access and fixed line penetration, applications are being developed at a faster stride for the mobile phone. A sterling example is Mobile banking. Safaricom, a technology firm, is blazing this trail with M-Pesa. Equity bank joined the foray with their mobile banking service offering Eazzy 24/7. The City is surrounded by several internet service providers and now four mobile service providers.

Computer science, IT and Engineering Students at University of Nairobi, Strathmore University and JKUAT are actively researching and developing apps for the mobile phone, as witnessed more recently with the Google East Africa Gadget competition. MIT offers the Entrepreneurial Programming and Research on Mobiles (EPROM) program that teaches mobile phone programming in 12 African universities including UoN and Kenyatta University.

Deregulation of the telecommunications sector and adoption of streamlined licensing frameworks with policy guidance from the CCK and privatization of Telkom has in many ways leveled the playing field for other service providers and has allowed competitors entry into the market. The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information Dr. Bitange Ndemo and the ICT Board have been supportive of local initiatives.

Are we there yet?
Clearly, wer’re not, but we’re on the right path. Tech start-ups are now beginning to emerge with the imminent growth in internet traffic capacity, the trend will only continue to grow because of the opportunity that technology offers to all sectors of an economy.
We’ve seen this trend before in Europe and Asia where increase in internet capacity not only led to an increase in access and penetration, but also a boom in economic growth.

Indeed, G. Paul Zachary, an NYTimes columnist pondered: is Nairobi the next Palo Alto?

Consider Wilfred Mworia, a 22-year-old engineering student and freelance code writer in Nairobi, Kenya. In the four weeks leading up to Apple’s much-anticipated release of a new iPhone on July 11, Mr. Mworia created an application for the phone that shows where events in Nairobi are happening and allows people to add details about them.

Mr. Mworia’s desire to develop an application for the iPhone is not unusual: many designers around the world are writing programs for the device. But his location posed some daunting obstacles: the iPhone doesn’t work in Nairobi, and Mr. Mworia doesn’t even own one. He wrote his program on an iPhone simulator.

“Even if I don’t have an iPhone,” Mr. Mworia says defiantly, “I can still have a world market for my work.”

With all the talent to spare and an enabling regulatory environment, Nairobi really could be positioning itself as the next technology cluster for mobile applications.
Photo credit: National Research Council Canada