Silicon Savannah

Countries of Africa are not known for their expertise in information technology, but dismissing them as IT backwaters would be a mistake. As reported in a previous Fifty Year Perspective blog post, an African company called Andela trains young people in coding for technology jobs. Graduates with 1,000 hours of coding experience have high success rates in placement in tech companies.

Kenya has risen to prominence as a center of IT innovation in Africa, earning the title of Silicon Savannah. Perhaps Kenya’s biggest success has been the M-Pesa mobile money transfer service, which has brought banking services to people in developing nations. Safaricom, Kenya’s mobile phone carrier, rolled out M-Pesa in 2007. In ten years it has grown to 30 million users in ten countries, offering opportunities for small businesses and lifting households out of extreme poverty.

Violence during Kenya’s disputed 2007-2008 presidential election gave rise to a geo-mapping software used to pinpoint locations where violence was reported. Called Ushahidi (Swahili for “testimony” or “witness”), the software is an interactive information-gathering and visualization tool that has been used in generating over 60,000 maps displaying environmental issues, elections and human rights abuses in 159 countries and over 30 languages.

From Ushahidi came BRCK, a rugged portable internet connectivity device for use in providing WIFI service to people in areas where electricity is intermittent.  Anyone within range of the signal can connect to the internet for free, or can watch shows, listen to music or read books from the stored content on the network.

In 2010 The East Africa Marine Systems (TEAMS) undersea fiber optic cable was completed, adding significant broadband in East Africa. Kenya led the project, and increasingly, tech hubs are forming to take advantage of the speed and access. The focus of these new tech hubs is building human resource capacity, development of public-private partnerships, and creation of employment opportunities for the growing young population. With government cooperation, they are creating local content.

These efforts have improved research into diseases, health care, agricultural production and marketing, delivery of education services, and information for international traders. As reported in a new book available online, Digital Kenya: An Entrepreneurial Revolution in the Making:

Governments are becoming more productive, farmers are getting value for their produce, transportation is becoming more efficient, and education is increasingly accessible and practical. External stakeholders are noticing, too. Multinational corporations are increasingly setting up research laboratories in Nairobi, and international policymakers are coming to Kenya to learn how we did it.

Digital Kenya reported: “In 1982, the Kenyan government banned the use of computers in public offices for fear that the new technology would take away secretarial jobs. Today, virtually every public office has computers—with more people than in the past engaged in their use—to enhance service delivery.”

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