6:24am

Fri October 4, 2013
Foreign dispatch

Kenya hopes technology will help its economy break through

The Innovation Trail's Ryan Delaney recently returned from a reporting trip to Kenya. You can find more of his reporting here.

Kenya is eyeing technology as a way to propel it into the developing world, but the digital divide remains daunting.

The government here has made a major push to expand mobile technology and high speed internet and it's had some success, especially around mobile phones. Kenya has now set its sights on bigger projects, like Konza City, its plan for a $10 billion, 5,000 acre high tech city to be built outside of Nairobi.

Kenya, though, still struggles to stock public hospitals with medical supplies and fill potholes on its highways. So is it worth spending billions of dollars on glass cities and fiber optics?

"It's the only way," argues Dr. Kamal Bhattacharya, head of IBM's research lab in Nairobi, one of the company's largest operations on the continent.

Dr. Kamal Bhattacharya, head of IBM's research lab in Kenya.
Dr. Kamal Bhattacharya, head of IBM's research lab in Kenya.
Credit Ryan Delaney / WRVO

He says Africa can't just copy Western innovations, but needs to come up with its own.

"Africa needs to leapfrog," he said. "How do you create a generation of engineers, of scientist, of people who understand that the next 25-30 are going to be critical for the continent and technology will be a key driver in the same way as the developed world?"

Bhattacharya's IBM lab is developing projects that will use technology to hopefully solve regular problems in the developing world - like snarled traffic jams that can grind productivity to a halt.

He says there's enough young talent in Kenya to work in tech and on projects like his, but the social fabric and education model need to catch up first.

Just a few miles from the supercomputers of IBM and Nairobi's other tech hubs, technology takes a different role the settlement of Kibera. A small shack hosts a handful of outdated computers, some stacked on top of each other; none of them in use.

Across the road, teenager Swalleh Abdullahi is tending a small shop that sells mobile phones and an array of cords and cables. A computer sits behind him that people use to burn CDs sometimes.

He says he's heard of plans for big tech investments like Konza City.

"I've heard most of the people saying that most of us here in Africa, they are creative and they have talent. The problem is they don't have capital," Abdullahi said. "That is the major problem."

"The last mile"

Dr. Bitange Ndemo was the information and technology minister under the previous government. He spearheaded bringing broadband internet to Kenya and dreamt up grand developments like Konza City.

Former information and technology minister Dr. Bitange Ndemo.
Former information and technology minister Dr. Bitange Ndemo.
Credit Ryan Delaney / WRVO

He argues that the investment in technology over traditional development will improve services and quality of life for all Kenyans, including those not online.

"Once you break through in technology, you actually pull all other sectors," Dr. Ndemo said.

He says moving services to the digital realm can solve problems like curbing corruption. No longer in government, Ndemo is powerless now to fulfill his dream of building high tech hubs. He expresses some skepticism about their likelihood of completion.

"It will be disaster if we don't do it. And there is a whole army of young people who believed in Konza," he said. "That it's going to help us; it's going to help us come together."

Dr. Ndemo says Kenya is on "the last mile" of connecting Kenyans to high speed internet.

In the rural central part of the country, Samson Kariuki is studying to be a computer programmer. For him high speed internet seems much further away.

"It's a bit slow. We use the modems which are very slow, but we just cope with it. The Wi-Fi at school, it's almost always down, but we just cope with it," he said.

Kariuki hasn't developed any computer programs of his own yet, but he's worked with a local farm to get them on Facebook. He's part of the younger generation that's excited and interested in working in tech, even if he lacks the opportunities of his peers in more connected Nairobi.

If Dr. Ndemo's dream of partnerships between private tech companies and universities is realized, more people like Kairuki could be working on the next big tech solution for Kenya.

You can find more from Ryan's trip to East Africa on his Tumblr, Will Trade for Elephants.