Kenya’s capital Nairobi, the birthplace of M-Pesa, has established itself as the “tech centre” in Africa within seven years. The rise of M-Pesa is impressive: in 2007 the local mobile services provider Safaricom in partnership with its shareholder Vodafone launched a mobile-based money-transfer service as a non- profit project. Just six years later a third of Kenyans (17 million people) were using their mobile phone to transfer or save money.
Despite these impressive developments, challenges remain substantial. In order for Kenya’s technology ecosystem to establish itself in the long-run, the specific regional conditions must be foregrounded within the activities of innovation policy. This means:
1. Create access to funding capital
An omnipresent problem in the start-up world is the lack of funding opportunities. What is lacking in Kenya are low funding sums in the start-up phase that enable companies to cover their living or hardware costs. At the same time, few Kenyan investors are taking stakes in tech innovations because the anticipated profits are still low and the risks high.
Development organisations and companies should commit themselves as investors or provide start-up grants as part of longer-term funding programmes. Equally, they can act as intermediate organisations for the distribution of micro-funding to reduce the transaction costs for investors. Incentives need to be created for investors and business angels for example by the government in order for micro investments to be made. Business angels should be specifically targeted due to their non-monetary support. Universities must promote funding concepts that correspond to the specific requirements of start-ups in developing countries.
2. Promote lasting structures
Investing in Africa means investing in future potential. Investors who enter the market expecting a short-term reward have little prospect of success and send the wrong signals to future company founders. Instead, investors should provide long-term incentives for entrepreneurs and enable sustainable business models.
Specifically this means that, instead of high one-off monetary prizes, companies and institutions should offer long-term support and targeted monitoring at start-up competitions. The creation of mentor networks should be promoted at local level from the government side and at international level by development organisations taking the diaspora into account.
3. Establish competences
Kenya’s population is comparatively young and has an enormous willingness to operate entrepreneurially. Kenyans are increasingly acquiring programming skills. However, very few have the relevant management knowledge to successfully realise business ideas.
In the long term African universities need to anchor management competence in their teaching. In the short term institutions that promote start-ups or convey tech skills should combine this with training in commercial management. Development organisations and IT companies can use grants and internship programmes to promote entrepreneurial and management talents.
Technological innovations are based on good ideas – and hardware. However, the African tech scene faces huge obstacles when it comes to procuring the necessary components. This is to do first with restrictive framework conditions for obtaining materials (lack of logistical infrastructure, high customs levies) and second to a shortage of training opportunities for hardware engineering.
Governments need to substantially improve the import and export conditions for hardware as the basis of a technology-based economy. Development organisations should promote programmes for expanding competence in the area of hardware production.
4. Set up stable real and virtual networks
In countries where entrepreneurs suffer from severe financial restrictions, the creation of technology meeting places (co-working spaces, incubators and accelerators) is particularly relevant. They enable access to hardware equipment, infrastructure, affordable premises and potential business contacts. Governments, companies and development organisations should support the spread of such places in a targeted manner.
Similarly, locations for the international transfer of knowledge should be created. Development organisations should offer exchange programmes between western and African start-ups and award travel grants for international conferences. Additionally, special entry and visa terms for African interns and students from the technology sector should be developed in cooperation with the African governments.