I listened with interest to the conversations generated at the just-concluded Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES). Never before have I heard the words “start-up,” “innovation” and “technology” repeated so much in such a short time, or seen so many people acknowledge Kenya’s ICT potential at the same time.
Ten years ago, nobody would have envisioned the explosion of technology development and use that have propelled Kenya to the centre of global recognition and earned us the moniker “Africa’s Silicon Savannah.” M-PESA and M-KOPA have put Kenya on the global map for their innovation and ingenuity to use simple technology to address customer needs while local start-ups such as iCow and Clad light continue to transform the lives of Kenyans despite not receiving the same global attention.
Every day, young Kenyans are coming up with innovative ideas for everything from agribusiness and education to entertainment and finance. You don’t have to look far to see that Kenyans are creative: whether this is a gift we are born with or something we developed as a means to earning a living may be up for debate, but the fact is that we are surrounded by innovators.
In one of the online discussions ignited by GES, a social media user pointed out the widespread misinterpretation of the term “innovation,” an error that had resulted in many associating it purely with mobile technology as opposed to its wider meaning: the process of translating an idea into a product or service that creates significant value.
Granted, this may also be a result of the numerous “app challenges” launched by players in the mobile and technology space, including Safaricom’s own Appwiz Challenge whose third edition was launched on 21st July. But innovation is so much bigger than what many of us limit it to. No creative mind should feel that they have to come up with an idea for mobile technology because that’s what everyone else is doing.
I see mobile phones as enablers of innovation; foundations upon which developers can create novel solutions to existing challenges. So chances are that whatever is created will eventually be linked to mobile technology anyway based purely on our devices occupying such an integral part of our lives.
I remember meeting Kuria Ndung’u, CEO of Dynamic Data Systems and a winner of the inaugural Appwiz Challenge, and being impressed by how a seemingly simple idea could have evaded all the brains at Safaricom. I mean, if banks can offer you a statement detailing your transactions why shouldn’t M-PESA do the same for you yet all the transactions we carry out through it equate to mobile banking? It’s that simple question that led to the birth of M-Ledger, which is today used by close to 200,000 customers.
Today, dozens of companies are launching their own developer challenges, targeting young creative minds in an effort to find the next big thing. We may be in competition with them but we have the same goal: to support local innovation and create sustainable businesses that we can then work with to support our own businesses. We’ve realized that the biggest hindrance to molding innovators into successful start-up entrepreneurs is access to funding, so we’re doing something about it.
According to the Unleashing Africa’s Entrepreneurs report released by the Tony Elumelu Foundation in February during GES, 8 out of 10 entrepreneurs are unable to get their businesses off the ground and sustain them due to lack of funding. People with brilliant ideas, potential employers, are forced to seek employment because they cannot afford to bring their ideas to life. In a country where an estimated 70 per cent of youth lack gainful employment or are underemployed, this should worry us.
It’s evident that corporates cannot absorb everyone looking for a job and neither can government. So what should we do? The answer is to support those who have the potential to come up with creative products and services, teach them how to run their businesses, fund them, and then allow them to do their thing.
You may be a developer with no idea how to run a business, or someone with a great idea for a new product or service but no technical background or ability to turn that idea into something tangible. Why not link up, find someone with marketing experience and create a team? Think of it as a “brains, brawn and mouth” arrangement where each of you has a skill you’re bringing to your 3-person start-up.
Not every idea will be great. In fact, eight out of 10 will probably flop, but you must keep at it. The opportunities for support are there. It’s up to you to unlock your potential. Question is; are you up for the challenge?