On Making Nairobi a Technology Hub

Lately, I’ve been mulling over this thought: what does it take to create a technology hub?

I’m almost certain Paul Kukubo has been onto this too for longer than I have, since the ICT Board‘s vision is that Kenya becomes a top 10 global technology hub. Nairobi being Kenya’s, and arguably the region’s, technology epicenter, does it have what it takes?

Silicon Valley is the world’s largest technology hub and the measure against which other hubs are taken. In the essay “How to be Silicon Valley“, Paul Graham writes:

Could you reproduce Silicon Valley elsewhere, or is there something unique about it?

It wouldn’t be surprising if it were hard to reproduce in other countries, because you couldn’t reproduce it in most of the US either. What does it take to make a silicon valley even here?

What it takes is the right people. If you could get the right ten thousand people to move from Silicon Valley to Buffalo [NY], Buffalo would become Silicon Valley.

[…]

[You] only need two kinds of people to create a technology hub: rich people and nerds. They’re the limiting reagents in the reaction that produces startups, because they’re the only ones present when startups get started. Everyone else will move.

Using this yardstick, does Nairobi innately possess these limiting reagents, and ultimately the potential for catalyzed growth into a global technology hub?

Well, let’s consider this for a moment.

Nerds Abound

He further elaborates:

What nerds like is other nerds. Smart people will go wherever other smart people are. And in particular, to great universities. In theory there could be other ways to attract them, but so far universities seem to be indispensable. Within the US, there are no technology hubs without first-rate universities– or at least, first-rate computer science departments.

So if you want to make a silicon valley, you not only need a university, but one of the top handful in the world. It has to be good enough to act as a magnet, drawing the best people from thousands of miles away.

Nairobi has a few good universities. Strathmore University is, in my opinion, the best of technology-centric schools in the country. Having attended, I may be biased, but I can assure you that if at all I am then it’s for good reason. It also happens to be Kenya’s highest-ranked university on a global scale, if you believe the metrics. Too bad Strathmore neither has a Computer Science or Software Engineering program; I think they would be outstanding at that. In terms of a computer science program, UoN‘s is probably the best of the field, though it wouldn’t hold a candle to universities in the South. JKUAT is also deserving of mention in this same breath.

The demonstrable passion for technology is evident. Check out IEEE Kenya’s Exhibitions – you’ll be blown away by the ingenuity and innovativeness. Take a look at Google’s EA Gadget Competition – 4 of 6 award recipients were from Kenyan universities. The 19-year old Morris Mbetsa is the current poster-child for his crazy, boundless passion. He created Block and Track, an app that can track and immobilize your car by sms. He actually bootstrapped the venture, hacking away, sans formal programming training.

This to say talent and passion for technology abounds. Against all odds. Nerds abound.

Investors Galore

If there’s any indication that Kenyan’s have both plenty of disposable income and aptitude for investing in technology companies, look no further than the recent slate of IPO’s. Each has been oversubscribed many times over. The equity allocations had to be readjusted across the board to the minimum in order to accommodate a larger investor pool.

Of course, finding an angel investor who believes in the potential of your product’s success and in your ability to deliver the goods, would be ideal. But what if 10 or 20 of those who had their funds reimbursed, banded together to form a private investment fund of sorts, wouldn’t this solve, in part or in whole, the startup funding problem? Just a thought.

Celebrating Start-ups

Successful start-ups and their founders need to be celebrated.  Why? Because (1) we already do this for the big companies and it works to boost morale and fire up the competition, plus (2) investors like to be associated with success and finally (3) start-ups beget start-ups.

True entrepreneurs can loosely be classified as (1) successful, and stay on to grow the company, or (2) successful, and cash out their stake, and pursue another venture, or (3) fail, and start over again. So 2 out of 3 times another start-up is likely to be formed. That’s how the start-up culture spreads and technology hubs are created.

How can this be done? My suggestions:

1. Create an independent awards ceremony (something like the Crunchies) dedicated to celebrating start-up companies and founders that have excelled.

2. Create a TV segment consisting of short, elevator-style pitches from founders, selling their ideas in 30 seconds or less and perhaps inviting people to invest, visit their site, review their application or product etc.

It’s all about increasing exposure. And don’t worry about someone else stealing your idea; if it’s any good, it would seem crazy enough for someone else to try it.

So does Nairobi have what it takes? I believe we’re on the right track and so long as the wheels don’t fall off the wagon, the unfolding technology scene holds promise.

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