Opinion: Rwanda Is East Africa’s New Tech Development Star, Kenya Falling Behind

By Tom Jackson AFKI Original Published: August 15, 2017, 10:49 am
Rwanda has been recognized for its tech development efforts. Photo - The New TimesRwanda has been recognized for its tech development efforts. Photo - The New Times

One month, two East African elections, and two very different approaches to the tech development that each nation admits is vital to their economic success.

Rwandans confirmed Paul Kagame as their president, with almost 99 percent of the vote, while in Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta was re-elected with 54 percent. Both elections were controversial, but the results stand.

Whether people are happy or not, however, Kagame and Kenyatta are now likely to be leaders of their countries for some time to come. Both have placed technological development, and becoming tech hubs in the region, at the center of their plans, but Rwanda and Kenya look like they are taking different paths.

Troubled times in Kenya

Not so long ago Kenya was the technological hub of Africa. Everybody was talking about it. The launch of M-Pesa, the global success of Ushahidi, and the development of the tech cluster around the iHub established Nairobi as a major destination for foreign multinationals and investors.

All that seems quite some time ago now. There have been no recent notable success stories to match those of M-Pesa and Ushahidi, and even the fabled startup scene is slowing down.

Investment in tech startups is declining year on year, according to the annual funding reports released by Disrupt Africa, and those in the know are increasingly tempted by places such as Nigeria and Ghana rather than Kenya.

It all came to a head recently when Ushahidi itself was caught up in a Silicon Valley-style sexual harassment crisis, which spiralled into angry debates about how a small group of people hold a disproportionate amount of sway over Kenya’s tech scene. The tech sector is fighting amongst itself.

Kenyatta’s government – in contrast to that run by his predecessor President Kibaki – has made efforts to engage with the local tech scene. Kenyatta paid visits to a number of local tech hubs, and made a lot of noise about the launch of Enterprise Kenya, a scheme aimed at supporting local startups. Little has been heard of this program since.

Meanwhile, his government has inherited a Kibaki project gone wrong, in the shape of the $14.5 billion Konza Techno City. It was supposed to create 200,000 jobs, but was already proving problematic and controversial in the Kibaki era. Kenyatta has not had the same level of enthusiasm, and while construction finally got underway in November, progress has been slow.

There are some bright spots, notably a massive recent funding round for local agritech startup Twiga Foods and the continuing development of Safaricom into a multinational services company. Yet Kenya’s tech development has stalled, mostly on Kenyatta’s watch, and the government needs to match its rhetoric with action if it is to get it going again.

Rwanda is Africa’s tech development star

Over in Rwanda, however, nobody could accuse the government of lack of activity. Though there are justified concerns about the dictatorial tendencies of Kagame’s theoretically democratic government, it is undeniable that this regime has achieved accelerated growth, mostly through its focus on technological development.

This focus makes total sense given Rwanda’s relatively small population – around 12 million – and a lack of exportable produce. Kagame’s government is determined that the country becomes an ICT services economy, and has invested over $100 million in a 4,500-kilometre fibre network.

It is also rolling out 4G internet across the country, and has introduced a One Laptop Per Child school programme. A similar programme exists in Kenya. In Rwanda, however, it has actually happened.

Activity has been so positive that a recent Global Information Technology Report by the World Economic Forum placed the country first in government success in ICT promotion. This has led to significant investments, from the likes of Liquid Telecom, while the ICT sector is responsible for around half of total foreign direct investments.

And while Kenya’s startup scene has floundered on lack of government assistance and a sexual harassment scandal, Rwanda is earning a reputation as a “test kitchen” for startups. Excellent internet, the ability to move around Kigali using prepaid bus smart cards, and the support of local incubator kLab are tempting entrepreneurs from all over the world, boosted further by the fact that people can enter the country on “entrepreneur visas”.

So the future seems bright for Rwanda, with a re-elected Kagame likely to continue with the policies that have seen it develop so rapidly so far. Kenyans in the tech scene, however, are still waiting for Kenyatta to put his money where his mouth is when it comes to technology, and he will need to do so to kickstart a scene that has ground to a halt.

Tom Jackson is the co-founder of tech news and research platform Disrupt Africa and a journalist covering innovation on the continent from the Cape to Cairo.

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