African innovation: accelerating into the future

With technology cities and tech-startups blossoming across the continent, Africa’s young creative entrepreneurs are harnessing new digital platforms to establish a flurry of ‘silicone savannahs’

“There’s no place like” are the words that greet your feet as you walk into the iHub. The phrase is a tongue-in-cheek reference and the internet-protocol equivalent of “There’s no place like home”. The charcoal-coloured doormat is the first of many quirky items strewn across the right wing of Bishop Magua Centre’s fourth floor along the Kenyan capital’s Ngong Road.

What was little more than an empty top floor at the beginning of 2010 is now what many across Africa regard as among the emerging epicentres for innovation in technology on the continent, aptly described by the founders as “Nairobi’s Innovation Hub for the tech community and an open space for technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in the area”.

Africa is gaining global prominence for disruptive innovation within a number of fields, most of which centre on mobile connectivity

A bird’s-eye view confirms that there’s momentum in the emergent rise of technology on the continent. Africa is gaining global prominence for disruptive innovation within a number of fields, most of which centre around mobile connectivity.

According to the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook, 10 out of 20 of the fastest-growing economies in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa. A World Bank report estimated that a 10 per cent rise in high-speed internet connections corresponds to a 1.3 per cent increase in growth in the economy.

New technopolis

In January, Kenya’s President, Mwai Kibaki, launched Konza Technology City, an ambitious US$9bn technopolis described as “Africa’s Silicon Savannah”. Dr Bitange Ndemo, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Information and Communications, announced that three international mobile-handset manufacturers had expressed interest in moving their chip-making businesses to Konza. IBM Research, meanwhile, set up its first science and technology lab on the continent in Nairobi in August 2012.

Konza has been a project long in the making. Announced in 2007, the multi-billion-dollar investment is being modelled on the successes of similar parks such as Dubai Internet City. The project has attracted interest from East and West alike. 

Elsewhere, Kenya has been undergoing a technology renaissance, stimulated by small hubs, labs and accelerators working on transforming the country through startups founded by a crop of creative young entrepreneurs. Less glamorous than the artist’s impressions of the Technology City, Nairobi’s Ngong Road is home not only to the iHub but to at least half a dozen other hubs and labs. These include Pawa254, a space dedicated to social entrepreneurship, the creative sector and activism founded and led by Boniface Mwangi, a photojournalist and Kenyan activist.

Nearby is 88mph, one of the continent’s first accelerator programmes, created with the aim of investing in startups between its Nairobi headquarters and its base in Cape Town. Last August, it entered into a partnership with Google to provide support for tech entrepreneurs across Africa. Also based at the Bishop Magua Centre is the seed capital firm Savannah Fund, launched last June. One of its first investments was in the mobile app biNu, which provides the features of high-end phones such as the iPhone for low-tech handsets and has also been backed with money from an investment company founded by Google’s Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt.

And Kenya’s not alone. With more than 73 technology hubs, 18 hacker-spaces and close to 65 business incubators, the continent is abuzz with the promise of technology. Universities have started on-campus accelerators to harvest the best ideas from their young students. The difference in approach between the ICT parks and technology cities and their smaller, more nimble counterparts is that each plays a different complementary role in the value chain of raising Africa’s ability to compete globally through technology.

Financial inclusion

Across the sub-Saharan African continent, investment in technology has not just seen for-profit enterprise gain but it has also come with social gains such as financial inclusion. The mobile banking service M-Shwari, launched by Kenyan network Safaricom, provides people with access to micro-credit loans and savings accounts through 67,300 agents across the country.

For the future of a continent where 50 per cent of the population is below the age of 20, maternal and newborn survival rates in Africa remain a challenge. African governments are tackling the problem in various ways, including adopting the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and at regional level with commitments set out by the African Union. Alongside the government reforms and infrastructure improvements taking place on the continent, technology has something to contribute as well, mobile technology in particular.

Second-year Ugandan computer science students at Makerere University took to reinventing the pinard horn – an old-fashioned stethoscope used to monitor the heart rate of a foetus – by pairing it with the maternal-health WinSenga app, which they developed on the Windows Phone platform. It’s a midwife’s or a traditional birth attendant’s best chance at detecting complications during early stages of pregnancy, with ultrasounds costing around US$3,000.

Success in innovation on the continent is not restricted to those with access to or directly using technology. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention and this plays out constantly across the continent, for example with Malawian William Kamkwamba’s story. At age 14, having dropped out of school, he used local scrap, blue gum trees and bicycle parts to build a windmill for his family and later his village. As an inventor, he’s gone on to create a solar water pump and more windmills.

What we know for sure is that the continent’s best and brightest minds are preparing themselves for the surge in growth, in devices, in internet and mobile penetration and the demand for local content and solutions.

Whether in Nairobi at the iHub, Lagos’ Co-Creation Hub, Cairo’s Flat6Labs or Cape Town’s 88mph hub, the continent’s commitment and drive can only be accelerated from here – be it online or offline.