Web developer David Kobia was a good 13,000 kilometers from Kenya — in Alabama, actually — when civil unrest broke out in his home country following incumbent President Mwai Kibaki's victory in the December 2007 election. Militias spurred by opposition politicians went on violent rampages attacking members of Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe with spears and machetes. So Kenya, previously considered an island of stability in crisis-addled East Africa, began 2008 mired in bloodshed.
Then Kobia got a call on his cell phone. A friend of his told him about a Kenyan who had suggested on her blog that somebody post a Google map on the Internet where attacks could be recorded in real time.
Seldom has the expression “born of necessity” been quite so pertinent. Kobia lost no time getting to work, and launched his own portal two days later, marking the start of his successful business Ushahidi (or “Testimony” in Swahili). The site made it possible for witnesses of violence anywhere in Kenya to phone in place and time, which were then mapped.
Five years later Ushahidi has a worldwide reputation for its crisis communication software. The Ushahidi platform, which makes it possible to easily crowd-source information — via SMS, email, Twitter and the Web — is now being used in 30 countries.
After 2010's Haiti earthquake aid organizations used the system to locate people who’d been buried alive or were starving, and to map collapsed bridges and refugee camps. The information had been gathered from some 25,000 SMS messages and 4.5 million tweets, and the data allowed them to put together a detailed visual of the disaster. A spokesman for the U.S. Marines that were carrying out rescue flights praised the interactive mapping system, saying it had “rescued lives every day.”
A new generation of entrepreneurs
Kobia, who has since received a number of international honors such as being named MIT Technology Review's Young Innovators Under 35 Humanitarian of the Year in 2010, is now one of the most prominent representatives of Africa’s young start-up generation. The continent people often associate with starvation and other major crises has in the past few years seen the creation of ever more successful Internet start-ups — a phenomenon undoubtedly related to demand and undersea Internet cables that have finally made it possible over the past three or four years for many African countries to gain Internet access nationwide. Before, people in many places had access only to the more expensive satellite connection.
Sub-Saharan Africa is also the fastest-growing market for cell phones. “And parallel to that you have a growing sense of self-confidence among young computer specialists,” Kobia says. He says the time he spent in the United States was particularly helpful in creating his company because he found it easier to overcome his own inhibitions there and to persuade investors to back him. “In Kenya, as a young person, you don’t really get the feeling that you could change things,” he says. “Only older people can do that. But in the States I discovered a whole other mentality, and that certainly helped.”
Even though Ushahidi began as a way to help aid organizations, Kobia sees himself as an entrepreneur, somebody who also wants to make money. “Some of the best programmers in Kenya work for non-profits when in fact they could be building this country’s economy.” He believes that in many cases such organizations “have disturbed free entrepreneurship and reduced Africans to beggars.”
Even Google takes notice
Which is why he and some colleagues in Nairobi co-founded iHub, an innovation incubator for the technology community that has become well-known beyond Kenya’s borders and has inspired the creation of similar hubs in Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia and South Africa. After a visit to iHub, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt wrote on Google+ earlier this year that “Nairobi has emerged as a serious tech hub and may become the African leader.”
Many of the first innovations were actually imitations of existing applications — for example, a kind of African Twitter — and were short-lived. The ones that survived tended to specifically address African needs. The most prominent example is M-Pesa, founded in 2007, a system that enables people to transfer money with their cell phones. It now has more than 20 million users in Kenya, where it has helped many people overcome routine difficulties of every-day life.
Heads of family working in the big cities, for example, no longer have to board long-distance buses (or buy the tickets in the first place) to make tiring overnight trips to their home villages to pay their kids’ school fees. They just transfer money into their M-Pesa accounts and send their relatives credit notices on their cell phones. With that the relatives can go to their local kiosks and get the sums paid out in cash. Like many other African digital innovations, M-Pesa is so successful in part because it works on cheap, old cell phones.
If Kenya is now the leading country in Africa for start-ups, part of the reason is the federal government’s innovation-friendly policies and support. For M-Pesa, for example, the national bank waived the requirement for a banking license. Kobia also sees historical and sociological reasons for the success: “Since independence, Kenya has invested heavily in education,” he says. Compared to other African nations, a large percentage of Kenyans can read and write. “And because the UN and many other organizations have a presence in Nairobi, it is one of the most international of the African capitals, so there is a constant exchange of ideas.”
The Kenyan government has ambitious plans to grow the digital boom: in Konza, a small city some 60 kilometers from Nairobi, they are planning a new development on 5,000 hectares called Konza Technology City that will have universities, data processing centers and research laboratories. It’s already been dubbed Silicon Savannah, and it's expected to create new 200,000 jobs by 2030.
For their part, David Kobia and his colleagues at Ushahidi recently received international recognition for a new invention: BRCK, a modem that looks like a brick and is supposedly similarly robust. It can connect to the Internet several ways: via Wifi, mobile phone networks and broadband cable. And it selects available access automatically.
David Kobia's BRCK — Photo: Juliana Rotich
The development of BRCK is based on a recognition that Internet connections are often unreliable and expensive, despite the digital revolution sweeping through Africa and a presence of cell phones even in the most remote villages. So why rely on technology from the industrialized world? Why not develop technology adapted specifically to Africa?
The modem is being launched in November. Kobia is hoping he will also be able to export large numbers of the devices. “It's built for use in the most basic conditions, for people who travel to and work in developing countries,” he says. “If it works in Africa, it’ll work in a lot of other places around the world.”
African solutions for African problems: increasingly a success formula for a young generation of entrepreneurs.