Kenya’s Silicon Savannah Spurs Tech in Sub-Saharan Africa

Aubrey Hruby and Jake Bright | Council on Foreign Relations | November 4, 2015

The role of technology in sub-Saharan Africa is growing. An emerging information technology (IT) ecosystem is reinforcing regional trends in business, investment, and modernization. There is a growing patchwork of entrepreneurs, startups, and innovation centers coalescing from country to country. Most discussions of the origins of Africa’s tech movement circle back to Kenya, which was home to several major technological innovations between 2007 and 2010. This innovation inspired the country’s Silicon Savannah moniker, and has provided an example for other African countries to follow.

In 2007, Kenyan telecom company Safaricom launched its M-Pesa mobile money service to a market lacking retail banking infrastructure yet abundant in mobile phone users. The product converted even the most basic cell phones into roaming bank accounts and money-transfer devices. Within two years M-Pesa was gaining nearly six million customers and transferring billions annually. The mobile money service shaped the African continent’s most recognized example of technological leapfrogging: launching ordinary citizens without bank accounts into the digital economy.

Shortly after M-Pesa’s launch, four technologists created the Ushahidi crowdsourcing app in response to Kenya’s 2007 election violence. The software that evolved became a highly effective tool for digitally mapping demographic events anywhere in the world. Ushahidi has since become an international tech company with multiple applications in more than twenty countries...