Berlin Web Week 2012: Why Europe can’t ignore East Africa’s Silicon Savannah

Silicon Savannah
Silicon Savannah

Berlin Web Week 2012East Africa is leading a new frontier of mobile service innovation – and Re:Publica 2012 speaker Mark Kaigwa argues Europe needs to start paying attention.

If you want a heads up on the internet community in Africa, Kaigwa’s your guy. He’s a blogger, creative and consultant based in Nairobi, Kenya; has worked with internationals Warner Brothers and Nokia; and spoke yesterday at Re:Publica 2012 in Berlin, the opening conference of Berlin Web Week.

Silicon Savannah

Africa is one of the fastest-growing mobile phone markets in the world and the biggest after Asia, according to mobile operators’ association GSMA. As well as innovation for “regular” phones, the success of the $80 Huawei IDEOS smartphone is opening up new potential for apps made by and for East Africa users.

Kaigwa makes a strong case for East Africa and Kenya as the “Silicon Savannah”, a hub for world-leading mobile innovation. Both large corporates and incubators/co-working spaces such as iHub (Nairobi), IceAddis (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) and Hive CoLab (Kampala, Uganda) are helping drive the creation of new technologies.

Mobile payment service M-PESA is a textbook example. Operated by Kenya’s Safaricom, M-PESA offers a cheap, effective money transfer service for those without bank accounts, and is transforming the lives of millions at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid.

Mark Kaigwa

M-PESA went live in Kenya in 2007 and now claims nearly 15 million users (check out this timeline of the service’s progress). It’s also proving exportable, including to Tanzania, Afghanistan and South Africa. In Afghanistan, M-PESA is cutting corruption by cutting out the “middle man” in police salary payments.

Don’t forget the southern hemisphere

Other apps showcased by Kaigwa included real time infomation providers Ushahidi, Swiftriver and Crowdmap – potential lifesavers in crisis-prone parts of Africa. For Kenya’s 1.6 million farmers, M-Farm and iCow offer game-changing access to vital market and veterinary infomation via plain old SMS.

“Starting with SMS can actually unlock not just the next million, the next 20,000… but possibly the next billion [users] across all the emerging markets”, Kaigwa told Re:Publica’s audience in Berlin. “As you’re thinking, as you’re creating, as you’re tweeting, as you’re investing in the next-level of business on this side of the globe, you can’t forget the southern hemisphere. More importantly, you can’t forget Africa.”

For founders driven by a desire to change the world, this really is world-changing stuff. It’s also a timely reminder, after Kony 2012, that Africa is much better considered a cluster of rising nations than a hopeless continent.

For related reading, check out:

Heureka! reveals keynote speaker Sebastian Siemiatkowski

A pitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy – your complete guide to the European startup events this summer