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February 17, 2019

Delusions of digital grandeur

Tech hub
Tech hub

In recent months, most mentions of Kenya in global news headlines have been accompanied by images of riot police clobbering unarmed demonstrators amidst clouds of teargas: Or alternatively, of demonstrators whirling their deadly slings, as they prepare to fight back.

Even President Kenyatta’s inauguration, in one of the news sites I subscribe to, was not illustrated by any image of the pomp and splendour of a Kenyan presidential ceremony attended by a host of foreign dignitaries.

Rather, the photo was one of Uhuru’s (unarmed) supporters being beaten senseless by the same riot policemen who are usually unleashed against the opposition demonstrators. Apparently the red-shirted masses had been a little too enthusiastic in their efforts to get into Kasarani Stadium and had broken through the fence in their determination to witness the historic event.

On the other side of that fence, tear gas and truncheons awaited them.

No doubt we Kenyans have been the source of much amusement globally for the past few months. A terrorist attack horrifies the whole world. But a purely internal political crisis, full of drama, is always an enjoyable spectacle for those not directly affected.

So, it was something of a relief to see a prominent mention of Kenya on foreign news sites, which had nothing to do with our ongoing political crisis. And the fact that it was presented as bad news for us did not take away this sense of relief.

This news was that Lagos was set to overtake Nairobi as the ‘African innovation hub’. And that all the notable action — as well as the new venture capital funding for digital innovation – was now to be found in Nigeria, and not Kenya.

I have always been deeply skeptical about Nairobi’s status as a major hub for digital innovation. It seems to me that we got this title by default.

Nobody can deny that M-Pesa represents a transformational step in the search for financial inclusion. Nor yet that there is an elegant simplicity in the millions of Kenyans who had previously not had any bank accounts suddenly being able to obtain a wide range of financial services through a $20 smartphone.

So successful has M-Pesa been that not only have all the other mobile phone service providers come up with their own versions of it, but it has been ‘exported’ to places as far-flung as Afghanistan, where Roshan, the country’s leading telecommunications service provider, takes great pride in its M-Paisa mobile money transfer service.

My favourite story is of how this Kenyan innovation ended up being a key technology in the fight against corruption in that country: Apparently even a famously corrupt nation like ours cannot compete with Afghanistan when it comes to creative new ways of stealing public funds.

The story has it that when Afghanistan security forces started receiving their salaries through mobile money transfers, the servicemen were utterly stunned at how much they received and just how much their salaries should have been all along. The old system had allegedly involved sacks of cash being sent to the various remote stations to be distributed as salaries. And along the way, all sorts of government officials skimmed off “their share” from this cash, leaving barely a third of the initial sum for eventual distribution.

So, the M-Pesa of which Kenyans are so justifiably proud, certainly proved to be a global game-changer. But to my mind, the real question here is, “Where is the next M-Pesa?”

M-Pesa has been around for over 10 years now. And during that time, the other transformational technologies we have seen have not been local innovations. Uber has changed the face of public transport in our cities; WhatsApp has made group communications — local or global and whether for good or for evil — so much easier than any previous technology had ever done. But both these are classic Silicon Valley innovations.

I am inclined to see the invention of M-Pesa as a black swan event – a rare, once-in-a-lifetime innovation, unlikely to be repeated anytime soon.

So, if Lagos has overtaken Nairobi as the African innovation hub, I can only wish the Lagos innovators the best of luck. Nairobi had its opportunity and blew it.

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