Government should do more for the local technology sector

As far back as the mid-2000s, Kenya had been tagged as Silicon Savannah for its ambitious aspirations of becoming the centre of technology on the African continent.

To accomplish this, the government embarked on building a robust infrastructure wooing global companies to set up in the country while urging education institution to invest in production of ICT talent. With a vibrant youthful talent coming out of the scores of colleges and universities, the country has the potential, if well harnessed, to realize the vision of the Silicon Savannah.

And the government and citizens have done well; we now have extensive broadband coverage in the country with all the counties connected and, in some cases, extensive reach to sub-counties. Kenyan citizens are some of the most tech-savvy across the world, what with the telecommunication sector leading the way with the high rate of mobile phone use. To a substantial extent, the country is reaping economic benefits from the visionary
investments made more than a decade and half ago.

Some (notably the Business Monitor International – BMI) valued the Kenyan ICT market at around $635 million at the end of 2020 and the Government of Kenya recognizes that ICTs are and will remain a major contributor to the country’s Gross Domestic Product. Today, Kenya has innovation hubs sprouting everywhere, dotting the landscape from the coast to the interior, with Nairobi being a leader in the number of hubs in place and tech

The Konza Technopolis, which was at the centre of the original dream of a Silicon Savannah, is moving ahead full steam, despite some past hiccups with funding. There is more. A vibrant tech-savvy youth remains restless, creating apps upon apps to address real-life problems intended to enhance Kenyans’ well-being. This can be seen across the entire economic spectrum from Education to Agriculture to Health to Financial Services to
Trading & Distribution, and more.

Most of these largely leverage the smartphone penetration which stands at more than 50 per cent of the phones in the market. The integration with mobile money services only serves to accelerate the growth. Moreover, with conditions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, we can expect further speeded take-off.
From business tech magazines, Kenyan-based technology start-ups are attracting global capital right from pre-seed to seed rounds.

Kenya stands shoulder to shoulder with, at times better than, countries such as Nigeria and South Africa in this space. In many ways, that Kenya is a destination for global tech capital investments is a vote of
confidence not only in our technology talent but also offers a real chance for Kenyan-born technology businesses to compete globally. And, from where I sit, the sky remains the lower limit where this sector is well-nurtured. A lot more needs to be done.

First, aside from building ICT infrastructure, the Government continues to pronounce policies that would catalyze growth in the sector. For example, the national government says that technology procurements should have a set minimum of local content. Indeed, back in 2016, the president himself pronounced that any ICT procurement needed to have 40 per cent local content, i.e. in both material and labour. There have also been vibes from the government with respect to supporting the promotion of the local tech industry through favourable tax regimes that would stimulate growth.

As well, there have been pronouncements that support the incorporation of the ICT sector into the marketing of Kenyan-produced goods and services. In this respect, the thinking is that the tech sector would be invited to be part of promotions to boost trade for the country. As such, technology products and services would be promoted alongside tourism, coffee, tea, horticulture and the like. Other suggestions include the government offering testbeds for start-ups.

I meet a lot of young people with ideas or prototypes they have developed but lack a robust environment in which they can test the ideas and applications developed. In this respect, ideas can be evaluated, tried, tested and refined before they hit the market. And I am glad to report that there are pockets in government where progressive leadership exists and is open to such ideas. Many such organisations advocate for ICT solutions made locally that likely fit better in the environment and have a lower total cost of ownership.

Having such testbeds would also encourage individuals involved to actively contribute towards the refinement of ideas, products and services being tested. Unfortunately, there are major gaps between policy pronouncements from the government and the actions of its officers. It is disconcerting that in most governments (from national to country governments to state corporations) the leadership care less about the potential they have to stimulate
local technology growth and realize technology’s true dividend for the nation.

It is often the case that, despite local solutions being available and better suited for use, and having a lower total cost of ownership, some government officials prefer expensive solutions fronted by global firms. Customization and long-term operational support for such foreign-designed systems end up being no-trivial, costing the taxpayer unnecessarily.