Equity Group Foundation has been hosting their 3rd Annual Education and Leadership Congress at the Kenyatta University. The congress has been running from August 13th and is scheduled to end on 23rd. The Group invited James Wabochi from Virtual City, Paul Kukubo from The ICT Board, Anthony Mwai from IBM Kenya and Erik Hersman from the iHub to take part in their panel discussion Innovating for Change. Hosted by the Equity Bank CEO, Dr. James Mwangi, the panel members spoke of their experiences and thoughts on innovation as they have seen it in Africa.
The 5000 students at the congress were some of the best from their schools. Though this is a good quality to possess, one cannot make it on academic qualifications alone. There has to be a lot of effort put in order to achieve success. When one talks about innovation in Africa, there is a different way of looking at it. Thinking about connectivity in Africa you would look at mobile phones before looking at computers. To make money in the future, this the view most people have taken. It is the reason for the success of Mpesa in Kenya. Innovation means challenging the status quo, i.e. the paradigm that currently drives business, universities and industries. For example, challenging the way information flows in the media.
As an innovation space, the iHub presents this case perfectly. The iHub already has 8,700 members, technologists, investors, media professionals and students, a cross-section that provides a view of what’s going to happen next. To be a startup founder, there is no age or educational limit. Having the ability to take a look at technology and using it to lower the barrier for you to create services and products gives you the chance to become successful. According to Erik Hersman, there are two things that one has to be aware of to create a successful start up companies, jump on the internet and learn from it in order to be ready for what will be happen in the future and try to learn from your experiences, especially your failures in order to create better decisions in future.
Many times in John Waibochi’s vision, there have been mistakes, but being able to peservere and learn from bad decisions has helped him attain a success in his business. Mr. Waibochi was involved in the popular Simu Ya Jamii project which then was a good idea but would not make a very good business sense right now. He has since been involved in other ground breaking business ventures including an Internet Service Provider and a company that sold mobile phone scratch cards. At the time there were only 18 such companies where presently there are 600. As CEO of Virtual City, he has overseen the creation of mobile solutions that are used in the agriculture sector and other industries.
A lot of what we are doing is definitely going to be in the virtual space, you could be offering a product and service to customers and you may never meet them. Mr. Waibochi recounts a conversation with his team where he asks how they going to enter the Rwandan market. “The decision was, that we are not going to enter Rwanda with a physical presence. We are going to there virtually, but these are the customers that we want and we want them to trust us.” Virtual City already has a market of 360,000 small-holder tea farmers and in the coffee sector they have about 20,000 farmers as their clientele. By using the mobile services to these farmers Virtual City has been able to change the way that the farmers manage their businesses.
IBM has thrived on reading the market trends and creating products which match the consumer demands. Having changed from creating typewriters to mainframes and then to desktop PC’s. But the company made a mistake by disregarding the operating system created by Bill Gates. Bill Gates went on to become one of the richest men by profiting from the popularity of his operating system. At one time, the company got rid of the divisions that were still supporting old technology in order to continue being relevant in the market. It is evident that change applies to both small and big companies alike according to Tony Mwai, the IBM General Manager for East Africa.
The impact of technology, especially mobile technology, to the society in Africa is very significant. Since most of the African population is made up of the youth (those under the age of 40), this completely changes the dynamics and the balance of innovative power. “Because Africa does not have a legacy of IT infrastructure and systems that we don’t have to maintain, we have the opportunity to leap-frog. We have the opportunity look at the mistakes that have been made in the West and the developed world and create things from scratch which should give the youthful people hope,” says Anthony Mwai.
According to John Waibochi Kenyan innovators can take leadership in what they are doing, especially in terms of mobile applications. This can be done by posing critical questions. Mr. Waibochi asks, “Can we create applications that we can export?” When considering outsourcing, you have to look at what you are good at. Outsourcing works both ways since you could be both a recipient and provider of outsourcing services. “Kenyans have a lot of talent in IT training,” says Mr. Kukubo, “In the middle tier of employment in South Africa, Ethipia, Uganda and Rwanda, Kenyans are very dominant.” He mentions both the education from school and gaining virtual experience as ways of develloping talent in a country. As companies become more aggressive in their growth, they demand more skills. This drives universities to change their curriculum to develop skills that are not available in the country.
In hiring, it is better to look at what one has done rather than what they have learnt. Erik Hersman tries to interview people to find out if they are smart and if they can get things done. “Being smart allows you to learn anything, getting things done allows you to execute those things,” says Erik Hersman. People who are top in their business possess both these qualities. Very few universities in Kenya produce good computer scientists, this is the same with most of the universities in the world. The best computer scientists are those who set out to learn on their own. Kenya has a competitive adventure in mobile technology. Taking advantage of this puts you in a better place of leading the world.
iHub research was built as a channel for people and companies who want to do research and fund that research locally. By partnering with Google and Intel, the iHub is building a supercomputer cluster which will provide access to testing solutions created for big data. “Again we are building a user experience lab and it’s the only one in Africa. So small and medium enterprise companies like John’s (Virtual City) and larger companies can test their applications,” says Erik Hersman. The iHub is doing this so that Kenyan technology in future will be owned by us and not by other people, by software and game developers.
Kenya’s innovation will be built around a lot of solutions being invented to solve problems which do not have solutions today. We have a great history of the Jua Kali sector. In the next 20 years, there is going to be a margin between the hardware and the software where the hardware is going to be as easy to use as the software.