Silicon Savannah Africa's Transformative Digital Revolution
In the space of 10 years, mobile phones and the Internet have changed African nations more significantly than any development since their independence from colonial powers. Now a growing group of entrepreneurs want to take things further.
In a loft with high windows, wooden floors and long tables, young women with their hair in small braids and men in colorful T-shirts sit bent over their laptops. They are students, bloggers, web designers and programmers. Their office, called iHub, could be somewhere in tech-obsessed California, but is actually located in a place few people associate with cutting-edge tech culture -- Nairobi.
People are gathering at iHub to work toward the future of the Internet in Africa, a future which is not only looking increasingly rosy, but has the potential to profoundly change the continent's infrastructure, economy and even politics.
One of the people working at iHub is Wesley Kirinya, 30, a dot-com businessman who dropped out of med school three years ago to found his company, Leti Games. He now has six employees around Africa, and rents a one-and-a-half-meter (five-foot) table in front of the windows here at iHub, just a few steps away from the building's café. This is his headquarters while Leti Games is in its start-up phase.
When Kirinya drops into the iHub café to buy a latté, he pays his bill of 100 Kenyan shillings (0.85 or $1.16) by text message. First he types in the café's telephone number and enters a PIN. Then he hits "send" and the transaction is complete.
This payment system is known as M-Pesa. The "M" stands for "mobile" and "pesa" means "money" in the local language of Swahili. M-Pesa turns a mobile phone into a bank account, credit card and wallet all in one. Invented in Kenya, the system is now used in nearly all developing nations. These days, a third of Kenya's economy is conducted via M-Pesa -- at a time when, in Europe, a few major cities are just starting to experiment with the possibility of paying for parking via mobile phone.
'We Feel Very Global'
As for Kirinya, he programs games for mobile phones. His latest project is called "Ananse" and features the spider-god of the same name, a figure from Ghanaian legend, battling unscrupulous politicians. "We've beamed Ananse into the present day," Kirinya explains. The game hit the market in Ghana and Kenya in October and has since been downloaded over 100,000 times. Starting in January, Ananse should start bringing in money, when Kirinya starts charging $1 per download. Updates cost extra, and payment, of course, is via M-Pesa.
In the process, Kirinya has made a name for himself, and not only in Africa. In March, he and his colleagues flew to San Francisco for a computer games fair. "They took us Africans absolutely seriously," he says. "We suddenly feel very global. Finally, we belong."
Game designers in the United States, of course, are much more advanced technically, Kirinya says, with working conditions he can only dream of. "But we could tell they appreciated what we're able to create with the resources we have," he says. The low-tech games Kirinya develops for the African market are a good example. The Americans he met, he says, were reminded a bit of their own pioneering days.
Kirinya works on his career at iHub 12 hours a day, sometimes longer, at which point his wife gets angry and the children complain. But Kirinya has big dreams -- and sees Africa's tremendous online potential. His next idea is to develop an African news portal for mobile phones.
Everyone here at iHub has a similar story. The center was created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar to serve as an incubator for the future-oriented ideas of Kenya's computer elite. Omidyar outfitted the building, a former shopping center, with affordable workspaces and Internet cafés in 2007.
The project, a kind of digital development aid, is modeled on India, where the IT boom that began in the 1980s has turned that developing country into an up-and-coming tech nation where millions of people now develop software, program games and work in call centers. In Kenya, the information and communications sector already accounts for more than 5 percent of the country's economic performance. Global corporations such as Google, Microsoft, IBM and Cisco have also recognized Africa's potential and taken up offices close to iHub. These days, Ngong Road, where iHub is located, is known locally as Silicon Savannah.
And that's not a joke but a promise. Sub-Saharan Africa is the world's fastest growing market for mobile phones, tablets and laptops. There are more SIM cards in use here than in North America. And with nearly half the continent's population of 900 million people under the age of 15, experts estimate there will be over 1 billion additional mobile phone users here by 2050.
Mobile Phones Where Governments Fail
In the space of barely 10 years, mobile phones and the Internet have changed many Africans' daily life more dramatically than any other societal shift since African nations won their independence from former colonial powers. During the independence era, Africans hoped to finally close the gap between themselves and the rest of the world. Today, after 50 years of hunger, war and corruption, that goal seems to be in reach - thanks largely to smartphones, which have achieved something most governments here have failed to do, by making up for the lack of infrastructure, the greatest obstacle to development.
Where there are mobile phones, there is less need to lay cables for conventional landline telephones. There is also less need to build highways, clinics and schools, because mobile phones are all these things in one -- as well as bank, weather station, doctor's office, atlas, compass, textbook, radio and TV station. Africans can now send money across the jungle or steppe with the click of a button, merchants can compare prices, and farmers can access weather data relevant to their harvests or get advice from veterinarians. Bloggers and social media users also function as a substitute for a free press, keeping watch over those in power. All that's needed to do all this are mobile phone antennas, which are built by companies, not governments.
Africa's Digital Visionary
"It's now easier, technically speaking, to supply a village with Internet access than with clean water," says Mo Ibrahim, a man who has done more than almost any other person for Africa's digital revolution. Time magazine named the Sudanese businessman one of the most influential people of our time.
When some of the world's most powerful people meet, that tends to include Ibrahim. Last June, for example, he convened with the singer Bono, International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg in New York to discuss the fight against HIV, on a panel moderated by former US President Bill Clinton.
Ibrahim founded his company Celtel, one of the first mobile phone providers in Africa, in 1998. Despite having had a successful career as an engineer at British Telecom and being the founder of an IT consulting firm in London, Ibrahim wasn't satisfied. "I never entirely became a European," he says. "Africa is simply part of me." So he began soliciting venture capital from his colleagues in the telecommunications industry to invest in Africa.
At the time, the sole advantage of being in Africa was that mobile communications licenses that went for billions in Europe and the US were available there for a couple million, because no one wanted them -- except Mo Ibrahim.
In the years that followed, Celtel expanded into 13 countries, with 24 million people using the company's network, and 5,000 employees. When Ibrahim sold Celtel to Kuwaiti mobile communications provider MTC in 2005, he received $3.4 billion.
A Subdued Mogul
Ibrahim, the son of a Nubian cotton merchant, catapulted Africa into the information age. "Africa is the future," he says. "We're finally part of the global process."
He says this in Marrakech, where he is guest of honor at an African Development Bank conference. The topic of his presentation today is the rule of law and transparency as prerequisites for progress in Africa. Ibrahim says he built up Celtel without paying any bribes.
The Sudanese billionaire walks the halls of the conference hotel alone. He doesn't feel the need for an entourage, as so many other African dignitaries do. He doesn't hold court and he doesn't summon to him those who wish to speak with him. Instead, he comes to the hotel's reception to collect them personally. Even the finance minister of Madagascar patiently waits his turn.
Ibrahim doesn't look like a brash businessman, but rather like someone who weighs his words carefully, an intellectual. He wears round glasses and understated suits -- only the embroidered initials on them betray the work of a custom tailor. His occasionally ringing mobile phone is a surprisingly old Samsung model. All this hardly seems to fit a man who maintains homes in London and Monaco, as well as a sailing yacht moored in Monte Carlo. He's very rarely at home, Ibrahim says. Most of his time is spent traveling the world, promoting Africa's causes. His wife, a radiologist, is used to it. Their son and daughter are grown.
- Part 1: Africa's Transformative Digital Revolution
- Part 2: Digital Tools for Remaking Africa