nairobi

Collaborative Introspection – A Lesson From The East African Tech Intelligentsia

East Africa’s Silicon Savannah is easily the most talked about region in Africa, as far as technology is concerned. And what’s not to talk about? It would seem that everything that’s anything in African technology happens there first.

Take Kenya for instance — the poster child of the global mobile money revolution and the ascendancy of technology in Africa. It’s got one of the largest concentrations of developer and technical talent on the continent. They are currently building Africa’s first super computer. Its people have shown themselves to be relatively early adopters of useful technology. Nairobi is awash with eager investors, on the hunt for the next M-Pesa. And I imagine that you’d have to watch where you’re going while you’re there — for fear of tripping over the numerous startup incubators and accelerators strewn all over the place.

When an ecosystem has got this level of optimistic tech mojo going for it, relative to the rest of the continent, it becomes really easy to sit back and take long leisurely sips of your own Kool-Aid. You might even get the idea that it’s so good that everybody else should drink it too. Thus, while I don’t think that Kenya’s strides in technology are overrated, I must admit that even I sometimes find the “Kenya this, Kenya that” talk grating, especially when their most significant achievement in terms of commercial viability up to this day is still mostly M-Pesa. I do not think I’m alone in this opinion.

The interesting thing however is that the first people to openly call out the East African tech hype cycle for what it really is come from right inside the Silicon Savannah itself. One writer said Nairobi’s Silicon Savannah needs less money and more modesty. Another cautioned against the influx of what he termed “Vanity Capital”.

It really is interesting. Most tech ecosystems in Africa do not have enough self-awareness to recognise a hype cycle for what it is. Or when they do, they’ll most likely elect to ignore it, determined to milk it for all it’s worth. If that was the case with Silicon Savannah, it doesn’t appear to be so anymore. Instead of becoming predictably defensive and labelling these writers “haters”, who are just trying to “knock their hustle”, the ecosystem seems to be taking these opinions to heart.

Yesterday, I read a post on the iHub blog announcing a meeting for the 18th of this month to take a critical look at the current hype phenomenon – a reality check for the Silicon Savannah. While Kenya’s iHub might not be totally representative of the opinions of East African tech, the fact that they are organising this sort of meeting is indicative that the most influential people in that ecosystem have once again initiated a process of collaborative introspection and self-evaluation, and I’m optimistic that the outcomes of that session will be far-reaching.

Note that I said “once again” in the preceding paragraph. I’ve always been impressed by East Africa’s large concentration of intellectuals in technology who are active in vocal and practical capacities, online and offline. Regardless of what they do, or where they work, you’ll still find them taking a direct hand in stimulating the local ecosystem in whatever ways they can.

Have you noticed how even thought there aren’t many East African tech blogs, we’re always up to date with developments in that space? That’s because they’ve got a strong and highly engaged personal blogging network, and the people that blog are often the same guys who are working on startups, incubators and tech non-profit. They constantly pen their thoughts about current developments, share their knowledge, and stimulate vibrant discussions among themselves, and their activity in these respects ensures that the community is one that is constantly and collaboratively self-evaluative.

In this particular case, it took only a few articles and opinions from thought leaders that echoed what most of them had been thinking, but maybe were afraid to admit, to make the whole ecosystem come alive to their responsibility to take stock and re-evaluate their position.

All of Africa is blessed with countless intellectuals, many of whom are in technology, but change is not happening as fast as one would expect in all the regions because we’ve been mostly lazy. The future of any society is determined not by number of intellectuals but by the role they choose to play in its affairs.

Down here in Lagos for instance, I’m often disappointed to learn of startups, CEOs and other actors who aren’t aware of each other’s existence and aren’t even familiar with competing products within the same ecosystem. That means little knowledge, if any, flows through the ecosystem. That means everyone is on their own, expending precious resources that might have been saved if we chose to share. That means that we can’t identify our common problems, be they of policy, infrastructure or what not, and present a unified front.

That ain’t right, and I hope it changes eventually.

The East African example is by no means perfect, but it’s something we can learn from, nonetheless. After reading that post on iHub, I’ve concluded that a strong and active tech intelligentsia is one of the biggest reasons why that ecosystem is successful and will become more so. Having come this far, I’m convinced that the same collective self-awareness is what will help them map a path through the hype bubble and consolidate their position in African technology.

[image via Flickr/Exfordy]

  • http://www.victorasemota.com/ Victor Asemota

    I really need to start charging for every single instance the term “digital high five” is used :)

    Yes introspection by those at the heart of the ecosystem is a great way to start and I think the avalanche started when we in West Africa started echoing the same thing about the hype in Nairobi and why we should not let the rest of Africa fall into the same trap.

    While the entrepreneurs have a fair share of the blame I believe the media is the greatest culprit. You can easily have too much of a good thing and the media never knows when to stop the hype once you start feeding them. What entrepreneurs have to learn is a lesson from the Christian Bible; The same Jews shouting “hosana when Jesus entered Jerusalem were the same ones shouting “crucify him” when he was in front of Pilate.

    The Kenyan blogs and Western media were part of the hype machine and that was why I started shouting against lists in West Africa in one of my earlier blog posts below

    http://asemota.posterous.com/the-problem-with-lists-and-awards-in-the-afri

    • http://twitter.com/iamlordbanks Lordbanks

      I really need to start charging for every single instance the term “digital high five” is used

      LOL, you noticed that too : )

      • http://www.victorasemota.com/ Victor Asemota

        I did :)

  • http://www.digitalcraftstudios.com Francis Onwumere

    Nice post sir,

    It’s really nice to see such a vibrant and supportive ecosystem in Kenya – beyond the hype, the ecosystem in Kenya (I can’t speak for the entire region) has put things in place to succeed.

    What’s really amazing and exceptional is that they have managed in such a short time to change the whole country’s attitude to using technology on a day to day basis for ordinary needs (M-Pesa et al)- this alone deserves all the hype they are getting.

    Having crossed the culture bridge (and the invaluable experience that came with it), just imagine what would happen if/when they start getting their business model, value proposition and execution right….

    luckily I’m going to see for myself, everyone should :)

  • seyitaylor

    Amazing post Bankole! Very very good stuff and thoughtfully written. Oya, write about the cycle of hype in Naija too na and the fact that Nokia Growth Academy is looking for apps everywhere.

    • http://twitter.com/iamlordbanks Lordbanks

      Somebone actually shared an interesting perspective with me about the Nokia Growth Academy at TEDx, I’ll be sure to add that to it

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