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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Making a money transfer in Kenya via mobile phone.

As many African countries struggle to achieve widespread economic growth and to escape from just being raw agricultural and mineral producers, change is occurring in Kenya, home to East Africa's largest economy.

There, information technology is being used as a springboard for growth. One aspect of that drive is Konza Technology City. The ground breaking for the government-backed 5,000-acre science-and-technology "silicon savanna," about an hour from Kenya's capital of Nairobi, took place recently. The bulk of Konza's $10 billion funding is slated to come from the International Financing Corp., a division of the World Bank. (To read both supportive and opposing comments about the Konza initiative, click here.)

Similar tech or green-oriented projects exist or are under way in Malaysia (Technology Park Malaysia), Panama (Pacifico), the Philippines and China. Nairobi is also the regional hub for U.S. tech companies including IBM, Google, Microsoft and General Electric.

But Kenya's advance, led by force of minds and not arms, is threatened. Eight weeks ago tourism -- Kenya's largest hard-currency earner -- began evaporating after foreigners were killed or kidnapped by Somali gunmen believed to be allied with al-Shabab, an Islamic militant group.

Then the U.S. Embassy in Kenya issued a terrorist-attack warning for Nairobi after Kenyan soldiers invaded southern Somalia pursuing the kidnappers. In 1998 terrorists exploded a truck bomb outside the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, killing more than 200. Attacks in Nairobi could devastate Kenya's economic advance, in addition to killing innocents.

A Futuristic Vision of Kenya

The Root looked at the expansion of Kenyan public, private and nonprofit information technology, which is a key part of Kenya Vision 2030 (pdf). This initiative projects that by 2030, the poor, ethnically divided country can become a more inclusive, industrializing middle-income country that provides its citizens with a high quality of life.

Kamau Gachigi believes that it is doable. The coordinator of the University of Nairobi's Science and Technology Park says that Kenya can develop economically if a coordinated effort unites government ministries and six national laboratories, seven national universities and the business-industrial sector. The Penn State Ph.D. in solid-state science wrote in an email that such an effort would construct a "triple helix [of interests], the 'DNA' for the successful creation of a National Innovation System anywhere in the world."

Collaboration already exists. Gachigi's science park is part of a network of MIT-sponsored Fab Labs. The labs have high-precision tools to turn ideas into reality. Gachigi says that too often, technically trained Kenyans leave science because of a lack of jobs in their fields.

Countering that reality at Fab Lab, engineers adapted an idea to create an inexpensive mesh network that provides high-speed connectivity for Web devices across wide areas. The engineers then started a company that is currently being incubated at Nairobi University.

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