Partnering with Kenya in Information Communication Technologies Innovation

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Julie Zoller poses with a group of women entrepreneurs who are part of the WECREATE Kenya training program.
Julie Zoller poses with a group of women entrepreneurs who are part of the WECREATE Kenya training program.

Partnering with Kenya in Information Communication Technologies Innovation

In February 2017, I visited Kenya to meet with leaders from government, the private sector, and civil society.  It was fantastic to see first-hand how Kenya is harnessing its entrepreneurial legacy to position itself as a leading information and communications technology (ICT) hub in Africa and creating new opportunities for the United States and Kenya to work together.

One of the first things I noticed is that cell phones were ubiquitous and that Kenyans were using them the same way that Americans use debit and credit cards.  Nearly 90 percent of Kenyans have access to mobile phones, and 85 percent of Kenyans have access to the internet, primarily through mobile broadband connections.  And instead of credit or debit cards, Kenyans were using M-Pesa a mobile money platform – that allowed Kenyans to make 400 million money transfers worth approximately $5 billion in the third quarter of 2016 alone.  Mobile money platforms like M-Pesa allow for safe transfers of cash and facilitate micro-financing, opening new prospects for entrepreneurs without access to a bank.  

Julie Zoller and visiting USG colleagues pose after a meeting with the Executive Director and Chair of the board of directors and staff of the Communications Authority of Kenya.

The Kenyan officials I met, including, Francis Wangusi, the Director General and Ngene Gituku, the Chairman of the Communications Authority of Kenya and Samuel Itemere, Principal Secretary at the Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology, underscored that Kenyan government fully supports policies which encourage innovation and investment in the ICT sector.  I greatly look forward to deeper discussions on policy matters and sharing best practices. 

Because 65 percent of Kenyans are under 35, it is crucial that Kenyan companies create jobs and opportunities for the emerging generation of aspiring entrepreneurs.  And I visited some enterprises that are doing exactly that.  For example, iHub is a Kenyan incubator which hosts both aspiring and already-successful start ups including USHAIDI, founded by entrepreneur Daudi Were.  USHAIDI is a crowd-sourcing app used to pinpoint crisis areas during elections and natural disasters, well-known and widely used throughout the world. At iHub I also visited BRCK, an innovative company providing broadband solutions to rural areas using a portable, solar rechargeable device that provides wi-fi.

Julie Zoller visits with iHub staff at the beginning of her tour.

It is not surprising that U.S. businesses are finding Kenya an ideal base to collaborate on digital economy projects.  I met with leaders of several American companies who are active in the Kenyan market including Surf, a last-mile U.S broadband provider, seeking to connect one million low- and middle- income Kenyan subscribers to the internet.  I also met with Andela, an American company which is training world-class software developers. And the biggest names in the U.S. tech market -- including Microsoft, Google, Facebook, IBM, MasterCard and Cisco -- are among the American businesses exporting technical expertise and equipment to Kenya.

It is important that women are also able to participate in Kenya’s tech revolution – and when I visited the WECREATE Center in Kenya, a U.S. State Department-funded initiative devoted to training women entrepreneurs, I saw for myself how such programs can help female entrepreneurs succeed.  The day of my visit, more than a dozen women entrepreneurs were working to scale up their businesses. Bilhah Maina, the founder of BilHoney, for example, was getting advice on potential export markets for her honey such as the United States. The success of these entrepreneurs will undoubtedly be part of Kenya’s effort to create jobs and opportunities for young Kenyans.

I was impressed by the energy and enthusiasm of the Kenyans I met, and their willingness to seize new opportunities.  I see a bright future for collaboration between the United States and Kenyan governments, motivated by entrepreneurs, to ensure the global policy environment fosters new ideas, technologies – and jobs – in both of our countries. 

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Julie Zoller

Contributor bio

Julie Zoller serves as Acting U.S. Coordinator of International Communications and Information Policy.