Business Management

Kathryn Cave (Kenya) - How Does Konza Tech City Square with the Post-Election Mess?

Over the last few months Kenyan promises have been running high. Plans for Konza Tech City were announced this January to a fanfare of trumpets, flashbulbs and beautiful artist's impressions. Pre-election procedures were heralded as a triumph for technology and democracy - with high tech biometric voter-identification kits, registration rolls on laptops at polling stations, and an SMS-relayed, real-time transmission all proffered to prove the point.

Now in a post-election Kenya of failed technology and uncertain (not necessarily democratic) results - Odinga is trying to use IEBC technological meltdown to nullify Kenyatta's win - where does the country's tech reputation stand? As Andrea Bohnstedt points out it in her Saturday article for the Kenyan Star, ‘IEBC Systems Fail: Are We Still The Tech City?', "It was one institution that failed, not an entire sector - and the IEBC isn't a tech firm to start with." However, the reception to all this does seem to be indelibly linked to Kenya's future, whether it is from foreign investors, or at grass roots level within the country itself.

For several years a huge PR spotlight has been placed on Kenyan technology, entrepreneurialism and progress. This began in earnest when the Nairobi iHub started in March 2010, but has been intensified by the success of mobile money service M-Pesa, which recorded a stock of around 17 million registered accounts across the country in 2012. Yet last week the BBC was forced to describe the election debacle as "[A] high-profile flop [which] is an embarrassment for the IEBC, as well as a blow to the reputation of a country positioning itself as an African tech hub."

At the end of January Executive Chairman and former CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt said, "Nairobi has emerged as a serious tech hub and may become the African leader. Incubators are hosting potential solutions to many problems, including connecting M-Pesa with payment systems for local stores." Konza Tech City, to be built 60KM outside Nairobi, is being designed as the ultimate metropolis of the future. To be funded by (largely) foreign money, the city is due to feature world-class architecture and premium quality business parks. At the start of the month The Kenya Film Commission also announced it plans to build a new studio in Konza City - no doubt to generate even more media attention.

Konza may not be due for completion for another 20 years, but an article by Katrina Manson in the Financial Times last Thursday (and whole series run in the FT over the last week) has looked at technology as a driver for Africa, with a lot of emphasis placed on Kenya. For the Kenyan government, it is clear that gaining finance from global investors keen to tap into African growth and Nairobi's appeal is of paramount importance. A lot of high profile companies are already at least part-based abroad: Safricom, for example (the company which owns M-Pesa) is 40% owned by UK firm Vodafone. This makes it unlikely this latest debacle will make any difference to companies scrambling to make money out of Nairobi's bright future, but who can tell?

At grass roots, much of the hype around technology and entrepreneurialism across the continent generally, and Kenya specifically, is driven by the surfeit of young people, the majority of whom are out of work. Official figures show that about 80% of unemployed people in Kenya are aged between 15 and 34. And a big feature of Kenyatta's campaign was the offer of one million jobs for this demographic in his first two years in office.

But does the promise belie the reality? In a world where incredibly successful young entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerman become industry focal points, does hope begin to overcome what is really possible? Last September, in another article for the Kenyan Star Andrea Bohnstedt described how what Silicon Savannah was missing was "the desperate need of a large dose not of money, but of modesty." Maybe this is what the last few weeks will provide? It is not as easy to rapidly roll out new kit as some might think.

In the end, nobody can seriously condemn the government's Vision 2030 on the basis of an unfortunately high profile tech failure. Yet it will be interesting to see how things development over the next few weeks... and how the plans for Konza Tech City continue to be received, both inside and outside Kenya.


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect



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