The Promise of Code in Kenya's Silicon Savannah

Young coders are building a thriving technology and startup scene in Nairobi.

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Apr 8 2014, 9:00am
Image above and inset, of Martha Chumo: Nairobi Dev School

Martha Chumo was preparing for an adventure. Her application was complete, the interview a success, crowdfunders had helped with donations and her place on the three-month course was confirmed: Next stop, New York’s prestigious Hacker School. 

But after complications attaining a tourist visa, two failed applications at the American Embassy—even with letters of recommendation from the institution and other technology firms in New York—the 19-year-old’s dreams of coding in America were dashed before they had begun.

“When I left the embassy that morning, I was thinking, I have this $5,000 belonging to people from all over the world and I told them I am going to New York, and then suddenly I am not allowed to go,” she said.

That was June 2013. Fast-forward nine months to the steps outside the American Embassy in Nairobi, and a phone call to a friend was to kickstart a very different journey.     

“After the second visa was rejected I was feeling extremely frustrated, so I rang up my friend and said, ‘You know what? I am going to bring Hacker School to Kenya,’” Chumo said. 

And so was born the Nairobi Dev School: a space where Kenya’s connected generation can go to plug in and learn the art of coding, programming, app development, and entrepreneurship. It's just the latest emblem of the evolving economic and social interests in a country where the tech sector is growing rapidly.

Figures from research group GSMA show Kenya’s mobile subscriber penetration grew from 22 percent in 2008 to 31 percent by 2012, while the government’s Communications Commission recently published data revealing almost 20 million of its 43 million citizens are now internet users, a growth of 61 percent over the year prior.

It’s difficult to pinpoint a specific catalyst for Kenya’s technology explosion. A series of new fiber optic network expansions, a process that started in 2008, transformed internet usage for several East African nations, while the increasing affordability of mobile phones is helping make internet available to the masses.

One highly successful early initiative was mobile banking service M-Pesa, which has transformed the country’s business climate. The online payment application (its transactions represent over 30 percent of Kenya’s GDP) has made business payments instantaneous and has inspired a raft of tech entrepreneurs.

Tech is by far the fastest growing sector in the Kenyan economy, and for young people in Nairobi, recently named the sixth most tweeted city in Africa, it’s become the most vogue of vocations.

Image: Nairobi Dev School

“There a lot of people interested in technology in Kenya,” Chumo said. “Startups are coming up all the time and there are new products in the market almost every day.” 

Forbes magazine included seven Kenyans in its top 30 young African entrepreneurs last year, with green tech inventor Lorna Rutto and Evans Wadongo, the man behind solar-powered LED lantern MwangaBora, among those named.  

From cloud storage service Kili and BRCK, the back-up generator which provides internet access without electricity, to the Jmavuno app, which lets farmers compare crop prices, and Idaktari, an appointment booking application for health services, the East African nation has become a breeding ground for countless digital creations.

Reflecting an increasingly digital-focused demographic, President Uhuru Kenyatta and his coalition government are also keen to promote the virtues of new technologies. A biometric fingerprint system was recently introduced to register MPs’ attendance, while “smart” driving licenses and microchipped number plates will be rolled out across the country this year too.

Erik Hersman, co-founder of iHub, a Nairobi-based innovation centre for the technology community, said the country’s rapid technology growth has surprised many. 

“We built iHub in 2010, and while things were already moving in the right trajectory, it feels like there has been an acceleration faster than any of us expected. There is now a mixture of big tech companies with the likes of IBM, Intel and Qualcomm moving in, as well as the growing number of local startups,” he said.

Image: iHub

The sight of multinationals descending on Nairobi is a clear indicator of its burgeoning global significance, although the number of foreign investors supporting local startups still remains small.

According to GSMA, over 60 percent of digital startups in Kenya are currently self-funded, while less than seven percent of new businesses in 2013 received money from venture capitalists. 

But Hersman, who also co-founded Ushahidi, an influential open-source news sharing platform which local journalists used to disseminate information following election violence in 2008, believes that ‘bootstrapping’ can be positive for the country’s technology businesses.

“Having a lot of companies self-funded isn’t necessarily a bad thing either; bootstrapping can do wonders for creativity and forcing you to focus on what really matters,” he said.  

Chumo, who opened Nairobi Dev School in July last year, received all of her funding through crowdfunding and personal savings, using the $5,000 earmarked for the New York trip and an additional £16,000 raised through Indiegogo.         

Located in the centre of Nairobi, the school offers its 12-week courses for free, teaching a range of computing classes and entrepreneurial workshops to the city’s aspiring developers, many of whom come to the school with an education but very few employment opportunities available to them.

Nairobi Dev School. Image: Flickr/Michael Bumann

“Kenya has an extremely young population, and it is educated to a certain level because we have a lot of free primary and secondary education. But there are not the opportunities for young people to find employment or create an opportunity for themselves,” she said.

“I think our program is very important in that respect, as we teach about technology and also entrepreneurship," she continued. "A good way to start solving the problem is to offer people the skills and training so that they can go out and find their own employment.”

Young people are hardest hit by unemployment in Kenya, with some 80 percent of the country's unemployed falling between the ages of 15 and 34, according to 2013 stats from the UN Development Programme. While education rates remain high among both boys and girls, the efforts made by Kenyatta’s government to address youth unemployment have been largely ineffective.  

“These are broke young people trying to get a job. They have no money to pay for other studies, so we offer the course for free. There are no financial rewards to the project and all the trainers who teach here are working as volunteers,” Chumo said.

Originally from Kitale, an agricultural town in Western Kenya, Chumo moved to the capital to study and admits “technology wasn’t really part of my world” until starting an internship after secondary school.   

“I was interning at an NGO in the city and I had to put all these figures into Excel. I kept asking my colleagues, ‘How is it working? How does it collate all the figures?’—they told me to search on Google and that is where I first started reading about coding,” she said.

Image: iHub

Eager to absorb as much information as possible, Chumo began teaching herself the complexities of coding and attending developer classes in her spare time. The challenges were not so much grasping delicate IT skills but rather the need to justify her presence in what remains a male-dominated environment. 

“At the beginning I was shocked at some people’s behaviour,” she explained. “At a Google meet-up, a man approached me and he’s thinking, ‘What are you doing here?’ and then he said to me jokingly, ‘You can code?’ and I replied, ‘Yes, I can code!’ So I had to prove to him that I could actually do it, and I did.” 

The same individual was one of the first to sign up to Nairobi Dev School for its inaugural course. Several pupils have since gone on to find work at local startups, with one former student now working at digital agency Sprout. 

In February, the school welcomed its second group of students, and with the intake split equally between males and females Chumo is hopeful that similar encounters will soon be reduced in the tech industry’s system.

“There’s still that mindset that women are not viewed as the typical coder, but I hope by building this school and encouraging more girls to attend and doing so in an environment where they can succeed, hopefully that mindset will change.”   

Undoubtedly, the tech industry is starting to improve the lives of many of its citizens and parts of the economy, but with nearly 20 percent of the population living in severe poverty according to the Human Development Report 2013, the benefits to Kenyans across the country are unlikely to be felt for some time.

Image: iHub

However, it is hoped the flagship project of the Vision 2030 development plan could boost these statistics. Dubbed “Silicon Savannah,” Konza Tech City lies at the heart of a blueprint to “transform Kenya into a newly industrializing, middle-income country providing a high quality of life to all its citizens by 2030.” 

It’s hoped the $14.5 billion project, situated on a 5,000 acre site 60 kilometres south of Nairobi, will advance the country’s economy and establish it as the continent’s technology centre.

Home to various digital industries, a university, and potentially some blue-chip international companies, the tech city aims to create 20,000 IT jobs by 2015 and more than 200,000 positions by 2030. 

“There is a lot of hype surrounding Konza. The kind of things that are happening in Nairobi are the same as in Silicon Valley. It is a nice idea, but it can also get to people’s heads by them trying to replicate Silicon Valley in Kenya,” Chumo said. 

As the digital divide narrows and the country’s technology innovations begin to blossom, it looks like the adventure is just beginning for Chumo and the rest of Kenya’s digital leaders.  

“The kind of solutions we should be building should be to solve local problems,” she said. “We should be encouraging local content. We need technology in the Kenyan context.”