will trade for elephants

Dispatches from a journalist's adventures in Africa

I couldn’t trade for an elephant while I was in Kenya, but my friends and I did adopt one through the fantastic and hardworking Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Meet Vuria, our adopted elephant.

Kenya hopes technology will help its economy break through

Kenya is eyeing technology as a way to propel it into the developing world, but the digital divide remains daunting.

The government here has made a major push to expand mobile technology and high speed internet and it’s had some success, especially around mobile phones. Kenya has now set its sights on bigger projects, like Konza City, its plan for a $10 billion, 5,000 acre high tech city to be built outside of Nairobi.

Kenya, though, still struggles to stock public hospitals with medical supplies and fill potholes on its highways. So is it worth spending billions of dollars on glass cities and fiber optics?

"It’s the only way," argues Dr. Kamal Bhattacharya, head of IBM’s research lab in Nairobi, one of the company’s largest operations on the continent.

He says Africa can’t just copy Western innovations, but needs to come up with its own.

"Africa needs to leapfrog," he said. "How do you create a generation of engineers, of scientist, of people who understand that the next 25-30 are going to be critical for the continent and technology will be a key driver in the same way as the developed world?"

Bhattacharya’s IBM lab is developing projects that will use technology to hopefully solve regular problems in the developing world - like snarled traffic jams that can grind productivity to a halt.

He says there’s enough young talent in Kenya to work in tech and on projects like his, but the social fabric and education model need to catch up first.

Just a few miles from the supercomputers of IBM and Nairobi’s other tech hubs, technology takes a different role the settlement of Kibera. A small shack hosts a handful of outdated computers, some stacked on top of each other; none of them in use.

Across the road, teenager Swalleh Abdullahi is tending a small shop that sells mobile phones and an array of cords and cables. A computer sits behind him that people use to burn CDs sometimes.

He says he’s heard of plans for big tech investments like Konza City.

"I’ve heard most of the people saying that most of us here in Africa, they are creative and they have talent. The problem is they don’t have capital," Abdullahi said. "That is the major problem."

"The last mile"

Dr. Bitange Ndemo was the information and technology minister under the previous government. He spearheaded bringing broadband internet to Kenya and dreamt up grand developments like Konza City.

He argues that the investment in technology over traditional development will improve services and quality of life for all Kenyans, including those not online.

"Once you break through in technology, you actually pull all other sectors," Dr. Ndemo said.

He says moving services to the digital realm can solve problems like curbing corruption. No longer in government, Ndemo is powerless now to fulfill his dream of building high tech hubs. He expresses some skepticism about their likelihood of completion.

"It will be disaster if we don’t do it. And there is a whole army of young people who believed in Konza," he said. "That it’s going to help us; it’s going to help us come together."

Dr. Ndemo says Kenya is on “the last mile” of connecting Kenyans to high speed internet.

In the rural central part of the country, Samson Kariuki is studying to be a computer programmer. For him high speed internet seems much further away.

"It’s a bit slow. We use the modems which are very slow, but we just cope with it. The Wi-Fi at school, it’s almost always down, but we just cope with it," he said.

Kariuki hasn’t developed any computer programs of his own yet, but he’s worked with a local farm to get them on Facebook. He’s part of the younger generation that’s excited and interested in working in tech, even if he lacks the opportunities of his peers in more connected Nairobi.

If Dr. Ndemo’s dream of partnerships between private tech companies and universities is realized, more people like Kairuki could be working on the next big tech solution for Kenya.

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In Kenya, waiting for Konza City


Along the main road between Nairobi, the capital, and Mombasa, on the coast, sits the future home of Kenya’s “Silicon Savannah,” but right now it’s just a regular savannah. Dry grasslands stretch on for miles, except for a fenced-in plot where a few shacks house guards ready to greet visitors.

It’s here that the Kenyan government wants to build a 5,000 acre shiny high-tech city from the ground up. About 50 miles from the crowded, dirty and congested capital, Konza Techno City will be everything Nairobi isn’t.

Kenya leads the African continent for internet access and has pioneered innovations like mobile money transfers. Now it’s setting its sights on this massive development project to place it alongside Dubai and Singapore as a global hub of technology and innovation.

"We’ll have more jobs"

Just a few yards from the perimeter of Konza, farmhands Salim and Mwema, both in their 20’s, are cutting grass along a fence line.

"All I know is big companies are coming here and we’ll have more jobs. I don’t know anything about the technology," he said, admitting he’s never been on the internet.

If the government’s vision is realized, tens of thousands of people will zip around on efficient public transportation and work in shiny skyscrapers on the site.

The price tag for Konza is placed at $10 billion. Kenya will chip in $2 billion of that for infrastructure. The rest of the work is supposed to come from private investment. It’s scheduled to be built in phases and completed in 2030.

Ecosystem of innovation

The development authority behind Konza declined to be interviewed about the project, but the man who helped to dream up the tech city is former information and technology minister Dr. Bitange Ndemo.

He says Konza will create the ideal location for partnerships between private sector, government and academic research.

"Because it’s very key that you create an environment where you can incubate, you can create an environment where there is research groups which can support you," he said in an interview. "While at the same time using that ecosystem to develop capacity for the country."

Konza is worth the lofty investment, he argues, because it will have  a ripple effect.

"Once you develop a park that gives you the ecosystem of innovation, people will begin to see and replicate that," Ndemo said.

"Hoping" for Konza

A mile up the road from Konza is the truck stop town of Malili where there’s only one public computer that connects to the internet over a mobile phone network, when it’s working.

A group of young men are passing time playing a game of pool on a table outside. Among them is Daniel Maingi. He and others came to Malili when they heard about the plan to build Konza City.

"The government said it’s going to happen, it’s going to open; it’s not opening yet but we’re hoping for the government to do it," he said.

Maingi went to a school for information technology. He fixes cellphones to earn some cash, but is otherwise unemployed. For now he waits for Konza in hopes of getting one of the predicted new jobs.

"I’m not going to give up," he proclaimed. "Even if it takes how long, I’m going to wait."

The Kenyans I spoke with about Konza City were mostly in favor of the plan. But their support was usually laced with some skepticism. And most of them usually had their own question: Will Konza ever be built?

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The different sides of entrepreneurship in Kenya

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Inside an office building along the main road leading west out of downtown Nairobi, is the heart Kenya’s startup community.

On the fourth floor, noisy kids are huddled around tables inside the iHub, Nairobi’s startup incubator space. Counselors are giving instructions to campers as they learn to build circuits and program small robots. The finished product zips around the floor, bumping into feet as kids crowd around in excitement.

When a summer camp hasn’t invaded the space, the iHub’s office is full of young programmers working on a mobile app or website.

The iHub has a few of the main ingredients needed for a good startup incubator anywhere: high speed internet, a ready supply of coffee and a foosball table. It set up shop in the donated space three years ago.

"Nobody thought we could ever be able to fill it; it just seemed massive. But now we keep expanding and hoping that other people will move out," said Mugethi Gitau, the incubator’s community manager. The iHub now takes up nearly three floors of the building.

The lion’s share

As the iHub has grown, so has the startup community and the products it’s developing. Some of iHub’s graduates now have their own offices in the building.

"[At first], we had a lot of, in Kiswahili we say ‘m-vitus’ or ‘m-things’, just a mobile phone app that could do something," she said. "But now we are going more towards developing something that can solve a certain problem or address a certain issue."

"We have a lot of challenges that technology is giving us an opportunity to fix," chimes in Mark Kamau, who runs the iHub’s ‘user experience lab’ on the first floor. He helps startups try out their ideas in the real world.

The startup culture here in Nairobi is working to expand the cluster’s momentum, Kamau said.

"Nairobi, obviously by virtue of being the capital city, seems to enjoy the lion’s share of the attention and of course the infrastructure," he said.

Rural entrepreneurship

That’s quite true when you venture outside of the bustle of Kenya’s cities. A few hours’ drive outside of Nairobi, entrepreneurship takes on a very different look.

Credit Ryan Delaney / WRVO
James Muturi replenishes the water supply on his new chicken farm. “I Google sometimes,” the young entrepreneur said.

With the slide of a heavy bolt, James Muturi walks into a newly built chicken coop to replenish the bird’s water supply.

He started raising the chickens and growing crops with a few others after going through a training program for rural youth entrepreneurship run by the organization TechnoServe, called STRYDE.

Instructor Margaret Ngetha says those in their early 20’s, like Muturi, can easily become unproductive in the rural economy.

"A majority of the youth are idle," she said while visiting the farm. "And when they’re idle, they will get into drugs, they’ll get into crime and they’ll become a burden on their families."

TechnoServe gives participants three months of business training and then mentors them as they get their businesses up and running.

For Muturi, who has aspirations of being one of the largest chicken farmers in Kenya, using the internet is a different business practice than those his age at the iHub.

"I Google sometimes," he said. "Sometimes I research the markets."

Credit Ryan Delaney / WRVO
Susan Wanjiru uses used water bottles to sell her homemade soaps.

And then there’s the enterprise of Susan Wanjiru, who makes her own soap and sells it in used water bottles she collects. She sells it in town and to a few nearby schools. But her one-person operation is limited.

"To have my own bottles, to do my own packaging without using other people’s labels or even bottles," she aspires to. "Right now I’m only able to make 60 liters (per batch) and all those who need the soap, they are many." 

The hurdles to growth facing Wanjiru and farmer Muturi are similar to what startups back at the iHub face: difficulty getting enough capital and resources to grow their business.

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Using tech to make Kenyan problems harder to ignore

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Trash and sewage is a common site along rutted dirt paths in Baba Dogo, one of the informal settlements, or slums, in the capital Nairobi. It all culminates in the middle of an open field.

"Before us is a community dump site," points out Sammy Aweti. "It’s where a majority of area residents come to dump their waste and their other garbages. So as you can see, it’s very piled."

Despite the highly visible trash heap, Baba Dogo’s waste doesn’t attract much attention. With no formal collection system, Justice Muhando explains, putting out the trash often turns into a game of hide-and-go-seek.

"You wake up early, you pick your garbage, [and] when your neighbor is not yet awake you leave it on their doorstep," he said.

On a map

Muhando works with the group Spatial Collective. They’re trying to put the problems of Nairobi’s slums on the map. Literally.

Muhando, Aweti and other volunteers from the community group Sisi Ni Amani, or We Are Peace, are canvassing the settlement with pocket-sized GPS devices and surveys. Spatial Collective will take the data collected and put it on a map.

Credit Screen shot / Spatial Collective
A map Spatial Collective built of clean water access in the Nairobi slum of Kibera.

Armed with this hard data, they can now go to local government officials or charities and show them just where the dump sites are and the problems they’re causing.

"When you collect that information, you can link it to the health, you can link it to maybe the standard of living of people," Muhando said. "So what I think we should do is show it to the responsible authorities. They’re the one that should follow up because the person on the ground is just a resident; they can’t do much."

The group also works to shed light on other common settlement issues like areas of high crime and access to health care services or clean water.

Election protection

The idea of using mobile technology to crowdsource information dates back to Kenya’s presidential elections in late 2007. When results were disputed, violence broke out in several parts of the country and more than 1,000 people were killed.

A mobile platform called Ushahidi, the Swahili word for “witness,” popped up after just a few days. Daudi Were and other Kenyan techies were soon tracking and collecting reports of violence over text messaging.

Ushahidi has since grown into a global platform. Its software was used after the natural disasters in Haiti and Japan.

And this spring, when Kenyans went to the ballot boxes again, Ushahidi was there with a new set of tools.

"In a nutshell, we’re basically turning every Kenyan with a cell phone into an election monitor," said Were.

Ushahidi used volunteers all over the country to report possible instances of voting irregularities, intimidation or a shortage of ballot papers. They put confirmed problems on a map and notified the proper authorities.

"We’re talking about election protection," said Were.

Ushahidi’s election monitoring platform tracked several thousand reports, but Were says technology is only “10 percent of the solution.” Ushahidi and Spatial Collective don’t have the resources to fix problems like a shortage of ballots or dumpsters, but they’re making the problems more visible; and harder to ignore.

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I wrote earlier on the trip about the country singer ‘Kenyan Elvis,’ who is actually Elvis Otieno. Here’s his cover of Walking in Memphis.

Made one more video goodbye before I departed. Here it is.

Kwaheri for now

My time in East Africa for this go around has come to a close. The three weeks flew by, but I met some wonderful people and worked with some great journalists.

Some things here have changed. Others have not.

There is a lot of new construction in and around Nairobi. And internet access has greatly expanded. But the divide between the haves and the have nothings is still vast.

The country now leads the world in mobile money and banking and the sector is providing a jumping-off point for entrepreneurs.

Kenya is banking heavily on technology - broadband internet and Konza City - as a way to lift its economy into the developed world. It remains to be seen whether that investment will benefit all Kenyans the way its visionaries foresee.

And as the nation works to adapt to a new constitution its president and his deputy go on trial for alleged crimes during the 2007 post-election violence. The outcome of those trials could create a power vacuum and cripple the rebounding economy. It’s too early to tell.

I hope this blog has offered just a little peak into East Africa the past few weeks and thanks to all for reading. I’ll be posting my reports and some rafting photos here so check back in the next few days.

And more adventures and stories are in the future, so be sure to stay in touch. As they say in Swahili, for now, Kwaheri!

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