Kenya doing Silicon Savannah II

Thursday May 19 2022
Silicon pic

The Silicon Savannah brims with creativity, and the best techies are minting millions.

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Four-year-old Addis Zeybe is a refreshingly outward-looking Ethiopian digital newspaper, that regularly casts an intelligent eye upon developments elsewhere on the continent.

A few days ago, it had a report entitled “What made Kenya darling of tech giants over other peer countries?”

The writer, Ilyas Kifle, touched on all the usual suspects; the technological revolution birthed by M-Pesa; government and private investment in tech infrastructure; the dramatic expansion of broadband; laws that enable innovation; and so forth.

At the tail end of the report, Samuel Teferra, an Assistant Professor at Addis Ababa University’s Centre African and Oriental Studies, says peace has also been important in the development of Kenya’s digital economy.

“Building a peaceful nation is a pillar for digital investment. Given the timely security situation in the country, multiple conferences are also even shifting from Ethiopia to Kenya,” he said.

He is on to something, but peace is probably only a small part of it. Kenya is not the most peaceful country in eastern Kenya – Tanzania and Rwanda – beat it in that regard. Additionally, the big wave of Kenyan innovation which earned the moniker Silicon Valley actually was unleashed by the post-election violence (PEV) of 2007-2008, the worst in the country’s post-independence history.

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The sun started to set on the Silicon Savannah affair in late 2012, and the era of rampant terrorist attacks, beginning with the horrific September 21, 2013, attack on Westgate mall by Al-Shabaab, and the rabid nativist nationalist politics that broke out as President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto battled charges about crimes against humanity from the PEV at the International Criminal Court (ICC). An enlightened light seemed to go out of Kenya. Terrorist violence, and nativist politics, it seems, don’t produce many creative counterforces.

Kenya’s extreme political polarisation carried into the 2017 election and remained high after President Kenyatta and his erstwhile election rival, former PM Raila Odinga, buried the hatchet and did the famous “handshake” of March 2018. The dividing line now became the one between the president, and Ruto, in one of the most peculiar rifts between a leader and his deputy.

The public agitation and verbal attacks against the Kenyatta government also reached high octane levels.

Yet, in this firestorm, a Silicon Savannah 2 has emerged. Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft, Google and Visa are among a list of tech and financial giants that have recently picked Kenya as their base for new operations.

One of the moments of this bounce back is to be found in the political fight over the August 2017 presidential election, which was annulled by the Supreme Court. It was the first presidential election overturned by a court in Africa at that point, and only the fourth in the world, after Australia, the Maldives, and Ukraine.

At the time, there were some voices who opined that the history-making verdict, would have a long-term effect of building an image of Kenya as a country governed by law, not the whims of strong men, and that it would provide comfort to certain kinds of global capital. They might have been right.

The annulment of the presidential election was the Kenyan judiciary’s rite of passage. It went through an unbroken run, in which the government’s perceived and real political overreach, including the bid to amend the constitution with the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) was overturned by the courts. No African court has imposed the kind of democratic restraints on the executive as Kenya’s has done in the last five years. The balance of power had shifted to the people, so to speak.

The internal feud between President Kenyatta and DP Ruto also had a democratic benefit. They were too busy fighting, they created paralysis in the state, and were too distracted to seize back the power that had slipped out of their hands. The Judiciary and Kenyatta, therefore, became Kenya’s accidental reformers, and the generals who won the fight were the motley crew of activists who brought all those cases to the courts.

If there is anything that Kenya has, that other countries don’t have, at least in the same large quantities, it is a democratic dividend. Silicon Savannah 2 is its child.

Other factors combined to get it over the hill. With the expansion of university education through a slew of new universities and evening classes, a large enough cohort of students produced by these streams had poured into the labour market by 2016. And it’s not just their numbers; it was also about who they were.

Many of them were from national groups, parts of the country, and economic classes that had long been locked out of college education. Their diversity and very different ideas had also thus been excluded from the innovation pool. Its uniqueness is evident in the new music, the TikTok videos, graphic novels, and all sorts of tech creations.

Then, as Samuel Teferra suggested, the Tigray war broke out in 2020, and all the tech trains that had run to Addis Ababa for years turned and headed south. In its usual messy, chaotic, corrupt, and noisy way, Kenya struck gold.