Kenya Lifts Itself Up by Its Tech Bootstraps

The East African country sees infotech as the key to moving up, but terror threatens those plans.

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In another instance, Gachigi asked his students to invite a self-taught Kenyan security expert and inventor to visit the lab. The man -- featured on a TV program -- had hacked a cellphone and built a large circuit board to monitor his home and run a homemade machine to brew his tea. Gachigi's students helped the inventor shrink the circuit board to one computer chip. Gachigi says that someday that inventor will be a millionaire.

Google Brings African Markets and Entrepreneurs Online

Google's sub-Saharan Africa unit, also eager to spread the IT gospel, has increased its presence at local universities and held webmaster and developer seminars. Last week the search engine company gave a new tool to Kenya's 10 million Web users -- 25 percent of the population -- with the launch of Google Trader Kenya's free classified service. It joined similar Google sites in Uganda and Ghana.

Google Trader is a boost for Kenyan entrepreneurs, but it isn't alone. South African-owned bidorbuy.co.za and dealfish.com are already in East Africa. But users beware. Dealfish, which has Web venues in nine African countries, including Kenya, has been hit by West African and Eastern European scammers posting fake ads.

In September the annual GKenya conference also offered owners of small and medium-size businesses a free website builder and training in how to advertise online. Check out the conference on the blog of Kiruikenn, a third-year computer-technology student at Jomo Kenyatta University.

While attending GKenya, Bitange Ndemo, Kenya's permanent secretary of information and communications, praised the initiatives. He said that "being online is an essential part of economic growth; having a website is as important as having a telephone. Google is giving small and medium business a head start by making it easy to have an online presence."

The Cellphone as Catalyst

Imagine a country where 15 percent of the population has a bank account but every second person has a cellphone. That place is Kenya, with nearly 40 million people and more than 25 million cellphones.

A catalyst for the IT revolution was created in 2007, when Safaricom Limited, Kenya's biggest cellphone company, created the M-PESA system and made Kenya the first country to use devices to transfer money. Millions of people now use their phones to stay in touch, open bank accounts and do business. Are you wondering how Kenyans charge their devices to do all of these functions? Increasingly they purchase a mix of locally created or imported solar-energy kits.

To build on this growth and attract investment, Kenya, in an unprecedented move for a government whose officials have often faced corruption charges, has given its citizens and the world open access to its books. This month Kenya became the first sub-Saharan African country to post government data online. Kenya Open Data uploaded core government development, demographic, statistical and expenditure data, as well as graphs that show how Kenya compares with other black-African and low-income countries.

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