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January 22, 2019

Techpreneurship: Is this Kenya's sure-fire answer to job creation

SUCCESS: A mobile money agent transacts with a customer. The M-Pesa innovation has gained global acclaim. Photo/FILE
SUCCESS: A mobile money agent transacts with a customer. The M-Pesa innovation has gained global acclaim. Photo/FILE

Kenyan youth with information technology skills are utilising them in a big way. The 'techpreneurs' are developing mobile applications and marketing them on social media.

This is helping many beat the quagmire of unemployment, with about 40 per cent of the country's labour force estimated to be jobless and actively looking for jobs.

Some local start-ups such as M-Ledger, M-Farm and Ma3Route are gaining popularity even as they create opportunities in doing what they are best at. Ma3Route, for instance, provides traffic updates in the city.

M-Ledger and M-Farm offer financial record keeping assistance and farming-related updates respectively.

Ma3Route's founder Laban Okune says mobile apps are offering the best option for job creation for the youth as the sector thrives.

"There is a lot of talent and if developers were to get enough funding, they will create considerable jobs for themselves and others," Okune says.

According to Gartner Inc., a New York-listed ICT research and advisory firm, social and mobile applications have been quite successful over the past five years.

“The convergence of technologies empowers virtually anybody to harness information technology for business advantages,” it says.

Reduced barriers to entry, new opportunities for exploiting information and unprecedented speed to reaching the market are the factors driving the digital industrial revolution, according Gartner.

In 2010, entrepreneurs in the Kenyan technology sector formed a web-based platform known as the innovation hub or iHub – a "nerve centre of Kenya's technology community". The iHub targets upcoming entrepreneurs, web- and mobile-based programmers, designers and researchers. Today, it boasts a membership of 14,658.

The iHub, m:lab East Africa and Nailab have received lots of praise and accolades for helping grow the number of app developers. They act as launchpads for new ideas and coach, train and mentor the start-ups till they become sustainable businesses.

It is no doubt then that techpreneurship is becoming a revolution in growth of the Kenyan e-commerce landscape.

In fact, investments in research and development in the sector are increasing. Strathmore University, for instance, has partnered with tech firms such as Samsung, Safaricom, Google, Microsoft, Intel, Oracle, Ericsson, IBM and Kenya Education Networks to set up iLab Africa. The lab, unveiled last month, is a research and incubation facility that will support entrepreneurship programmes in apps and software development.

“... the investment in iLab Africa will position Africa’s 'Silicon Savannah' in line with the government’s efforts to support development, growth and uptake of ICT in Kenya," said Fred Matiang'i, ICT Cabinet Secretary.

Ilab Africa's director Joseph Sevilla said that the facility's key objective is to nurture young techies.

Kenya is leading in Africa in terms of mobile application development. The level of initiative and interest in application development is highest here and that's why we brought the lab,” he says in an interview at iLab.

Sevilla is optimistic that iLab will nurture start-ups that will walk in the footsteps of Google, Twitter and Facebook.

“Guys like Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook co-founder) and Jan Koum (WhatsApp founder) come once in every 10 years. But I have hope in Kenya because when you have many people pitching ideas, its likely that one of them will come with a big and successful project,” he says.

Samsung is adding innovative apps developed locally on its Android phones, helping developers to cash in on their talents.

Kenyan universities and colleges are churning out a great number of IT graduates each year. With the emergence of tech companies that continue to create jobs in the local markets, we’re beginning to see increased absorption of the jobless youth by start-ups,” said Robert Ngeru, vice president for Samsung East and Central Africa.

Ngeru says the local tech start-up scene has grown rapidly over the past five years, driven by need for locally relevant apps that help solve problems.

"Penetration and use of smart phones has grown rapidly and the beauty is that it has resulted in an increase in usage of apps,” he says.

At PIVOT East, an annual forum initiated by m:lab East Africa and whose backers include the World Bank, mobile start-ups pitch ideas to potential financiers including venture capitalists. The 2014 conference was held last month.

Techpreneurship is a growing market that is trending globally. We are investing in start-ups in order to empower entrepreneurs in Kenya and the East African region,” said Magdalene Mulandi, Chase Bank's head of brand and corporate affair.

The mid-tier bank was one of the sponsors of this year's competition. One of PIVOT East's 2014 objectives is "to facilitate discovery of the next wave of high potential mobile start-ups". The conference has been held since 2011.

But as success in the local tech world gains momentum, developers are becoming prone to theft of ideas. Software firm Microsoft is advising developers to copyright their apps and recently unveiled an online intellectual property portal dubbed the Microsoft 4Afrika IP Hub.

Louis Otieno, the director for legal and corporate affairs at Microsoft East and Southern Africa, said the intention is to create an IP protection culture in Africa since most small businesses rely on secrecy instead of using established processes, making start-ups vulnerable to exploitation.

Most African innovators function on the premise that the idea is theirs until someone else takes it to market, or duplicates it. As innovation flourishes, the future remains uncertain if these promising ideas are not supported and protected properly,” Otieno says.

The Kenya Copyright Board has itself been campaigning against use of unlicensed software, but the threat to start-ups remains potent.

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