Voices of the Silicon Savannah
2. Voices from within Kenya’s social-tech ecosystem
The tech scene in Kenya, and in particular Nairobi (sometimes referred to as the Silicon Savannah), is considered one of the
most vibrant, advanced and successful in Africa, and the innovation and startups within this scene are key drivers of economic
growth and job creation in Kenya (World Bank 2018). However, it is by no means the only such scene and while some of the
opinions in this document are specic to Nairobi, many apply to other places in Africa and the global South in general.
For clarity, I have chosen to use the term ‘social tech’ as shorthand for the myriad of terms that are used to refer to this
overlapping space of technology and those seeking to do good in the world: ICT4D, Tech4Dev, Digital Development, etc.
In parts of this work, the local technology ecosystem is used synonymously with ‘social tech’. This is deliberate — I found,
as have others, that ‘the two were seen as interchangeable by many interviewees’ (Rodrigues et al. 2018: 6).
2.1 On digital entrepreneurs
It is dicult to draw clear boundaries around the technology sector in Kenya. Though it is mostly located in Nairobi,
it is beginning to thrive in other parts of the country and includes a highly diverse range of people: social enterprises
and commercial start-ups; local Kenyans and expats (mostly white North Americans/Europeans, but also other Africans,
Indians and people from other countries and ethnic backgrounds); people working from tech hubs and those working
independently; experienced business people and students fresh out of college.
Despite this diversity, one concern emerged time and again: the story of the ‘successful Mzungu founder’. There is a widely
accepted idea that most of the successful digital/social-tech start-ups in Kenya have been established by overseas —
typically but not exclusively white — founders. A range of reasons are given to explain why this might be so, including a
lack of Kenyan role models, the idea that some younger Kenyan start-ups see entrepreneurialism as a ‘hustle’ not a serious
decision, cultural factors around attitudes to risk, the lack of contacts and networks, and limited opportunities to gain
relevant education, training or hands-on experience.
As we dig into this perception, a subtler picture begins to appear. While it is certainly true that most investment goes to
expats4, it is less clear that this translates into the accepted story of Mzungu successes, although people certainly see a
range of other factors that could have an inuence here:
n Kenya is a country of young people with a high unemployment rate. This inevitably means that options such as
starting your own business will attract a wider range of people — serious start-ups, hustlers, people who would
rather be in a full-time job, etc. — many of whom lack direct relevant experience or educational resources.
In contrast, the type of North American/European who can aord to move all the way to Kenya to set up their own
business is far more likely to have savings and experience.
n Fewer Kenyans have the resources and support networks to take the risk of not earning money for 12 months while
exploring an idea; even less have a safety net that allows them to experiment, try a few ideas and succeed on their
third or fourth attempt (which is the norm for start-ups in most parts of the world).
n Many Mzungu founders have extensive real-world experience in the sector and bring networks of overseas contacts
with them. This is less often the case with Kenyan founders (perhaps because in Kenya’s economic climate, leaving a
well-paid job to become an entrepreneur is a much higher risk, and thus less likely to happen).
Most interestingly, however, many of those I spoke to disagreed fundamentally with the accepted story, and saw the
dierence as more related to the narrative itself: overseas founders, especially those from Silicon Valley, seem to be better
at self-promotion and the TechCrunch-style media are more interested in their investment-fuelled, high-growth, high-risk
stories than they are in reporting on other kinds of successes.
In reality, there are lots of successful start-ups founded and run by Kenyans5, so perhaps the more incisive question is
why these are rarely touted as the success stories, while the same few well-known, mostly US-led organisations — BRCK,
Andela, m-Kopa — continue to receive the bulk of media attention.
Perhaps the real dierence is that entrepreneurs with experience, connections and a safety net are more likely to succeed
than those without, and Mzungu’s in Kenya are more likely to match this description than Kenyans and more likely to pro-
mote their own success – perpetuating the myths. If this is the case, what can be done to level the playing eld?
4 A Village Capital study found that more than 90% of funding for East African start-ups went to expat founders (Matranga 2017). Although there is
some doubt over how reliable this gure is (it focused primarily on US venture-capital, ignoring other forms of investment nance), the ndings
resonate with feelings of many in Kenya and are likely to be similar when broadened to include other forms of nance, if perhaps not quite so stark.
5 Those that were highlighted include Pesapal, Innova, Senga, Sendy, Twiga, JamboPay, Sky. Garden, Little Cab, Eneza Education, Ongair, Node Africa,
Africa’s Talking and FarmDrive – I am sure there are many more!