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07/10/2013

Kenya's tech visionaries leading the way for Africa.

NAIROBI —  It is mid-morning in Nairobi's iHub, a community space for techies and a kids' hackathon – where children as young as 10 are learning some of the basics of coding – is in full swing. The hangar-like space boasts table football, a coffee bar and an ambience that is more Seattle than African savannah.
Amid the eager people huddled over laptops and tablets is the towering figure of Erik Hersman, with his bald head and reddish beard. Known to most Kenyans online as @WhiteAfrican, the American, who grew up in East Africa, has become one of the most effective evangelists for the technological future of his adopted country.

The co-founder of both the iHub and Ushahidi, software, which has been used from Haiti to New Zealand to crowd-source information and map crises, wants to challenge the notion of Africa being a single entity blighted by wars and famine.
"In the US I still get asked if they (Africans) have computers and mobile phones," he says.
When it comes to phones and Kenya, they certainly do. Six years ago the leading local telecom firm,
Safaricom, noticed that its customers were sending mobile phone airtime to each other in lieu of cash. They decided to formalise this, calling it M-Pesa, from the Swahili for "cash", and enable subscribers to deposit money into a mobile account that they could then send to others or pay for things. Simple and text based, it worked on the most basic phones.
Today, Safaricom has almost as many subscribers as Kenya has adults and M-Pesa is used for everything from paying electricity bills and school fees to sending money to relatives upcountry. Cash equivalent to nearly one-third of Kenya's GDP [US$37.2bn in 2012] washed through the money-transfer service last year.
That success has given Kenya a global reputation as an outlier in the mobile money sector, while the impact of Ushahidi means that Nairobi is now looked to for software innovation.
This has been Africa's "mobile decade"; there are 74 mobile phones for every 100 Kenyans and, of those who access the internet, 99% do it via a mobile device.

The challenge, says Hersman, will be ensuring that "five or 10 years from now Nairobi is Africa's tech hub", ahead of the more populous Lagos, Nigeria's biggest city, or South Africa's wealthier Cape Town. There are signs everywhere that this is happening. Along the corridor in the same building as the iHub is a new office for the GSMA, the global telecoms trade association.
Its executive director, Anne Bouverot, says "the rapid pace of mobile adoption has delivered an explosion of innovation and huge economic benefits" and has pumped £20bn into the sub-Saharan Africa.

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