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Lessons for Kenya from France’s Sh25b tech city

By Dominic Omondi | Updated Tue, December 20th 2016 at 00:00 GMT +3
Known as Station F, it will be the world’s biggest start-up campus. The idea was pioneered in 2014 – a year after former President Mwai Kibaki unveiled Konza Techno City – by French entrepreneur and philanthropist Xavier Niel in Paris. Station F will host about 1,000 start-ups.PHOTO: COURTESY

As Kenya painstakingly tries to build an awe-inspiring technopolis in Makueni County, the French are preparing to unveil a simple but grand idea in April 2017 – a start-up campus.

Known as Station F, it will be the world’s biggest start-up campus. The idea was pioneered in 2014 – a year after former President Mwai Kibaki unveiled Konza Techno City – by French entrepreneur and philanthropist Xavier Niel in Paris. Station F will host about 1,000 start-ups.

The 250 million euros (Sh25 billion) project will have an auditorium with the capacity to hold 370 people, more than eight event spaces and close to 3,000 start-up programmes. In 2018, there will be a co-living space set up to house more than 600 entrepreneurs.

Station F is not unlike our own Konza Techno City. Both are tech-related projects intended to tap into the growing importance of information, communication and technology (ICT) as a powerful economic force.

But as Station F prepares to receive tenants next year, including social network giant Facebook, Konza City remains pretty much an idea.

Kenya says it is building “Africa’s Silicon Savannah Valley”, with Konza expected to host apartments, tech schools, hospitals and shopping malls in less than 14 years’ time.

The Government will spend a whooping Sh1.4 trillion – more than 50 times what Mr Niel is pumping into Station F. Given the poor infrastructure around Konza, it will be expensive to ensure the area is well fed with electricity, clean drinking water and quality Internet.

France, with a gross domestic product (GDP) of Sh280 trillion – 50 times Kenya’s GDP – decided to keep it simple, and not try to replicate another Silicon Valley in rural France.

The actual Silicon Valley in the United States’ Southern California was a result of several contributing factors, including a skilled STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) research base housed in universities, plentiful venture capital and steady US Department of Defense spending. Stanford University’s leadership was especially important in the Valley’s early development.

Powerful force

But even if cities could be created artificially, Konza appears set to gobble up much more than it needs to.

Station F is a result of a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) that saw the French government donate a disused railway station – Station Freyssinet – to telecommunications magnate Niel. The station will now host 1,000 start-ups, more than 10 international start-up programmes, coffee shops and bars. Most of these are complete just two years on.

In Kenya, the Government spent close to Sh1 billion acquiring land for Konza, and three years later, there is little else to show for it besides a ring-fence around the 5,000-acre property, an artery of all-weather roads and a few water tanks.

There is no doubt Nairobi is popular as a tech hub in the region, but without proper planning and support, Konza is unlikely to build on this potential.

During a recent visit to France, it became clear that Kenya’s reputation in mobile banking has spread like wildfire, and there are investors looking for opportunities to ride on this.

A video streaming provider is thinking of coming into Kenya and would love to work with BuniTV, which produces The XYZ Show; a solar company is working with Kenyatta University to help produce solar energy; a company that produces batteries that can store solar energy is in awe of M-Kopa, and would like to work with the firm to take electricity to rural areas.

Clearly, Kenyan companies have plenty to offer international investors. Imagine if local businesses had an affordable and conducive environment that linked them to potential investors today, and not some time in a far off future. If Station F can teach us anything, it is that the best ideas are simple.

 



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