Earlier this year I conducted some self-directed and self-funded research in Kenya, looking at challenges and opportunities for the social-tech / ICT4D sector in Kenya. The final report has just been published and a brief summary is below.
In 2016, I lived for a while as in Nairobi, working with and doing some research with the ‘social tech’ community (all those using ICT and digital technologies to try to improve the situation of poor and marginalised communities and individuals).
I enjoyed my time there, so when I found myself between consultancy roles and debating whether to set up something on the ground, it was the obvious place to which to return.
So I started doing some customer-discovery work – immersing myself into the space and people rather than being yet another ‘Mzungu with a good idea’.
Mid-way through interviewing 40+ local practitioners however, I was offered a full-time job at the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) so my plans quickly evolved and I started to look on the customer-discovery work with a more research-oriented perspective focus, and so this report – Voices of the Silicon Savannah – emerged. Thank you to all those who gave up your time to help me pull this together!
(I am sufficiently aware of the controversy over the references I am drawing on for this title – the World Bank’s ‘Voices of the Poor’ and the highly over-used term ‘Silicon Savannah’ – to be faintly embarrassed by the choice of title (a good example of why can be found in this entertaining article on the iHub website). I hope that by making the voices of the Kenyans that I interviewed the central focus of the work, I have avoided repeating the mistakes that piece outlines but I guess time will tell. And despite these valid concerns – it is a kind of catchy title! 😊)
I hope you enjoy reading the report, a few of the findings I feel are most interesting include:
- The need to challenge the story of ‘Mzungu success’
A key finding is that the narrative of ‘success’ in the Kenyan tech scene often focuses on the overseas, usually white ‘Mzungu’ founders – who typically receive more investment, have better networks and resources and can afford to take greater risks. However, this ignores the many local Kenyan successes, and points to the need to develop a new narrative of Kenyan success and champion these stories through the promotion of successful Kenyan role models.
- ICT4D funding is confused and not supporting those who need it most
Funding is dominated by overseas aid-donors and private investors whose incentives skew the way local implementers and entrepreneurs frame their projects, causing an over focus on upwards-accountability reporting and a preference for high-risk high-potential-return products. A significant gap exists for support the very early stage ideas of local entrepreneurs, for experimentation, for building local capacity and for understanding and exploring local markets (i.e. finding out what really works). At the same time, much of this technology funding is – directly or indirectly – going to overseas, not Kenyan, companies, reducing its impact on the local economy and jobs.All funders (including the government) could do more to support Kenyan organisations, to create funding vehicles and procurement that is designed for very early-stage ‘customer discovery’, testing the market / business models and that encourages adaptive and user-centric ways of working. They could also offer more funding and support to the slow/modest-growth businesses that are the mainstay of the economy instead of the high-risk “hockey stick” companies of the Silicon Valley model that is being imported.
- Tech hubs could be doing so much more!
There is a clear and urgent need in this landscape for local intermediaries who can help the different actors to collaborate, and to bridge the gap between local players and overseas/multi-national organisations. Tech hubs are embedded in this local context and could perform this vital role but have been moving in a different direction – driven by their need for financial security and the needs of their overseas investors. For tech hubs to step up, they need to either find the elusive commercially sustainable business models, or funders need to understand that the vital intermediary role they could play is a role that needs to be externally financed as a public good.
There are other findings and recommendations in the report but these jump out to me as the most immediate.
It feels like there is a definite need for the social-tech community to come together more effectively and speak with a shared voice. If anyone is exploring this or related themes and is interested in taking any of the recommendations forward – I would welcome being approached to see if there is any way I can help!