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Kenyan information official leads an IT revolution

Since Bitange Ndemo got Kenya hooked up to high-speed Internet, there has been no stopping his cyber-progress. A 'Silicon Savannah' is now flourishing.

November 15, 2012|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • A cyber cafe beckons Kenyans in Nairobi.
A cyber cafe beckons Kenyans in Nairobi. (Tony Karumba / AFP/Getty…)

NAIROBI, Kenya — Along Nairobi's dusty Ngong Road, so many start-up incubators and IT labs have popped up that the busy neighborhood has been nicknamed "Silicon Savannah."

Techies, geeks and innovators race one another to come up with the next big thing. They rush from meeting to meeting, work late, skip weekends. Every other day there's a pitch night for tech start-ups, a creative Web workshop, or a meeting of mobile app developers.

The result is a surge in innovative Kenyan apps, most designed to work with the not-so-smart phones most Kenyans can afford.


FOR THE RECORD:
The headline on an earlier online version of this article referred to the subject, Bitange Ndemo, as "Kenyan information minister." In fact, that title is held by another Kenyan official. As the article notes, Ndemo is head of the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology.

There's iCow, a virtual veterinary advice service that coaches small farmers on how to tend their dairy herds, avoid illness and improve production. And mFarm, which helps small farmers determine the right price for their produce, find buyers and sell it. And Huduma, which allows people to report and map government service failures such as water cutoffs and potholes, and track how long it takes to fix the problem.

Why is this happening in Kenya? People here have two words: Bitange Ndemo.

In his youth, Ndemo gave up on his country and went to study in America. Kenya was too corrupt, too undisciplined to make it, he thought. The contrast with America seemed stark. Now Ndemo, the 52-year-old head of the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, is at the heart of Kenya's startling IT revolution.

In a region where bureaucrats often do more to constrain change than to encourage it, IT leaders here speak of Ndemo in reverential tones. Erik Hersman, co-founder of Kenya's best-known technology hub and the son of American missionaries, says the nation's expansion in IT couldn't have happened without Ndemo.

"We are in that phase where the government is fully onboard with the tech revolution that is happening, but also the people, normal citizens, are really embracing change," Hersman said.

"I have to give it to [Ndemo]. That guy, over the past five years has really pushed things along, and other people — regulatory bodies and the government itself — have seen this and gone with him on it."

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In 2006, a year after he became the director of the information ministry, Ndemo tired of the endless delays as 23 African countries bickered over plans for a joint fiber-optic cable for high-speed Internet. Instead, he linked up with one from the United Arab Emirates.

When the cable was switched on in 2009, Ndemo made sure universities got unlimited Internet capacity. He pressed the government to put money into IT research and start-up incubators. He persuaded the president to make all unclassified Kenyan government data open source — available to anyone online — a move nothing short of revolutionary on a continent where reflexive secrecy is the rule.

Part of Kenya's advantage in the world of African IT is its good education system, with results in literacy, science and mathematics far outshining its main rival in the field, South Africa. But leaders in Kenya's IT community say the government also got some other important things right, including subsidizing Internet access.

From fewer than 2 million Internet users five years ago, now there are more than 12 million in this East African country of 40 million people. Nearly 90% of the population has access to cellphones, according to the Government Communications Commission of Kenya.

Kenya is the undisputed world leader in mobile money (bankless transactions via cellphones), a development introduced in 2007 by cellphone operator Safaricom, which now handles more than half the world's mobile money transfers. As Kenyans leapfrogged from no bank accounts or Internet into cellphones and mobile money, the transfers took off.

Mobile money users can pay school fees, buy items in shops, pay utility bills, buy tickets and pay for services. They can send money to a relative in a remote village without spending two days getting there and back by bus.

The system has huge implications for the developing world.

When American techies Ben Lyon and Dylan Higgins got together in a Seattle basement just over two years ago to sketch out their idea for a joint mobile money app and software business, they didn't move to the Silicon Valley. Instead, they came to Nairobi and launched a mobile money software firm, Kopo Kopo.

"Mobile money is the payment system of the emerging market," Lyon said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a billion-dollar business in an emerging market."

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