Innovations that have thrust Nairobi into a Silicon Savannah

Habit has it that when you wake up each morning, the first thing you will look at is your mobile phone, probably plugged into the mains to recharge or lying by your bedside like a spouse.

Tech analyst company ReportLinker found out that 66 percent of American millennials reach for their smartphones before they rise out of the covers.

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“When we wake up in the morning and turn our phone over to see a list of notifications, it frames the experience of ‘waking up in the morning’ around a menu of ‘all the things I’ve missed since yesterday,” says Tristan Harris, Google’s former Design Ethicist, on Medium.

Then during the day, in intervals of every five minutes, you will probably be fixated on the screen of your mobile phone, thumbs crocheting across the dark screens drawing patterns knitting texts like magic.

It is now apparent that with just a mobile phone in your hand, one can wake up, order home-delivered coffee, hail a taxi to work, order food for lunch, borrow and send money, pay bills, hold Chama meetings over the hundreds of successful applications being developed every day.

While Kenya lays claim to the silicon Savanah with over a decade experience in molding the use of the mobile phone from just a calling device to a personal assistant, the county government and state infrastructure seem to lie way behind.

While one can pay for parking via a mobile phone the e-Jiji pay electronic wallet, the County government still has boots on the ground to physically clamp cars, follow up on licenses, water bills and collect rent in its many houses.

While Kenya has partnered with Huawei Technologies Kenya to implement the Nairobi Intelligent Traffic System (ITS) project which is part of the Nairobi Urban Transport Improvement Program (NUTRIP) and by World Bank and the Government of Kenya with Kenya Urban Roads being the implementing agency, the county is still using traffic marshals.

The city hotels, restaurants and buildings all operate varying levels of free WiFi connection yet the city open spaces are not plugged into the world like you would expect the capital of the Silicon Savannah.

In fact, it was only this year that the main artery to the world Jomo Kenyatta International Airport allowed for free WiFi after initially giving access for only one hour after which users were subjected to pay to use the service.  

Despite global advancement in digitization, the City has not yet mastered the opportunities to phase out the old way of doing things.

A stark reminder is one you will notice in some streets, the old Telkom Kenya telephone booths still stand sentry-like archeological finds mostly vandalized into extinction.

These dinosaurs were sent into oblivion by Simu ya Jamii, where you would prepay before you talked and had to cram people’s numbers or have a list on a piece of paper with those you would basically need to call.

Just over a decade ago phones were the premise of the rich, telecoms company charged credit for every minute so you had to time yourself lest you dropped a call just when the next minute clocked.

Then Safaricom happened, they introduced per-second billing while introducing Sh100 credit and that changed not only who could own a phone but who could use it. 

Many cannot relate how in just under five years a lot has changed especially tech-driven world which spins in the millisecond and staying ahead of the curve is more important than announcing the financials of a company.

Kenya has become the global leader in terms of internet penetration at 83 percent, ahead of more populous countries like Nigeria (81 percent) and even India (79 percent).

The smartphone penetration rate which recently surpassed the 40 million mobile subscriptions in 2017 to stand at 41 million, reaches at 90.4 percent of the adult population and has created the country’s most profitable business in East Africa, Safaricom and myriad of other digital businesses that run on the platform.

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Some of the digital businesses include MyDawa, a concept conceived to streamline the process of drug delivery to consumers. Owned by ION Equity MyDawa allows you to scan your prescription upload it and then the orders are placed in your cart and delivered to a pharmacy near you.

In the food section, Spoons Kenya, an online shop that delivers cakes, chocolate, coffee, and dry snacks was founded by 30-year-old accountant Neha Malde who now works with 10 vendors to deliver the foods that are freshly made.

The food delivery space has grown big and aggressive especially with the entry Uber Eats into the food delivery business has also hosted online e-commerce store Jumia run Hello foods.

Uber is better known for its taxi application that launched its operations in Kenya three years ago and has established significant market share against close competitor Taxify, an Estonian firm.

Not to the outdoor local enterprise, Little, the Craft Silicon owned taxi-hailing took advantage of the new foreign firms who were initially reluctant to onboard M-Pesa payment into its application to integrate the Safaricom solution on their service.

Sendy, a mobile-based courier service, had also integrated M-Pesa into its application and the rest were forced to follow suit.

But perhaps the biggest revolution in the use of mobile phones have come through banking with lenders onboarding more than half of their transactions from bank tellers to mobile handsets while alternative lending services get a level playing field to compete.

According to a KPMG report on global fintech investment, digital lending is growing at a rapid pace, with over Sh3.1 trillion ($31 billion) invested in fintech companies annually.

Lendable, for instance, which offers credit to smaller lenders like Watu credit to finance asset purchases such as home solar systems and appliances, farm equipment, livestock, and vehicles says widely available data has helped them lend responsibly.

“Lendable’s philosophy highlights the importance of conducting thorough risk assessments during due diligence, promoting the responsible use of data, and lending only based on your customers’ repayment capacity,” the firm said in a press release on June 20.

This is the lesson Safaricom benefitted from the rise of mobile phone loaning applications. They had the data on how you used your telephone, bought airtime transacted with M-Pesa and they knew banks would clamp on this.

For instance, if you took Okoa Jahazi which was introduced by Safaricom in 2009 sent all your “please call me, Thank you” launched in 2005 they would know you would struggle to pay your loans.

But if you Sambaza credit to friends and family, then this would indicate that you had the liquidity to pay and bam, banks could lend to you even without seeing your face.

The telcos saw the opportunity to partner and Commercial Bank of Africa which had partnered with Safaricom to launch M-Pesa had the front seat in launching M-Shwari, integrated and so intertwined that the idea of Safaricom as a telco or a bank blurred.

It also benefitted from being a payment platform for all e-commerce websites it has also set up its own online store Masoko, and while it partnered with musicians over Skiza tune it discovered the value of setting up Songa to venture into the music industry with earnest.

Instead of going for buyouts of the current players most of whom are foreign-owned, Safaricom has gone for start-up solutions like Little Ride where Safaricom partnered with Craft Silicon to offer a taxi-hailing app and the partnership with Shomax, a South Africa firm to deliver video content.

As a partner and platform, the company has learned from its resources which have allowed it to now venture out as a digital company hoping to cannibalize the market.

But the future lies in the innovation hubs that has given Kenya the accolade as the Silicon Savannah.

Safaricom which has set up a business incubator unit is stepping up to compete for partnerships with players like iHub, the Kenyan icon of Silicon Savannah that offers a home for developers and entrepreneurs to connect and work on ideas. 

When the history of Kenya’s technology revolution is written, Safaricom will definitely have a special chapter given its role as an enabler.

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