Over the past few years, Kenya’s innovation scene has come to the limelight, resulting in some naming the country as the technology hub of Africa. Some of the factors that have led to this acclaim are the growing number of shared working spaces, young technology enthusiasts, incubators where developers are mentored and trained, and a craze for mobile application development. The Open AIR team in Kenya – comprised of Dr. Isaac Rutenberg, Victor Nzomo, Louisa Matu-Mureithi and myself – is conducting research on mobile innovation in Kenya. As a researcher on the team, I am helping to conduct research, interviews, and analysis on the case study entitled “Open Collaborative Models of Mobile Tech Innovation in Kenya.”
Mobile Innovation in Kenya
As a Kenyan, I am seeing mobile applications create solutions to problems facing the average Kenyan in sectors such as health, agriculture, transportation, education, financial services, entertainment, and security. Through the use of simple USSD technology, Kenyans are able to access life-changing services, which would not otherwise be available. Mobile applications are becoming the cornerstone of socio-economic development; helping to improve the living standards of Kenyans as well as enabling startups to reap the benefits of their innovative ideas
Consider ‘Totohealth’ a mobile application that helps pregnant women to receive timely messages throughout their pregnancy with health advice, reminders, and even interesting facts about their baby’s progress at each stage of their pregnancy. There are also applications like ‘Eneza Education’ that enables teachers and students to access courses and tests through SMS, especially helping students in remote areas. Another startup, MFarm, runs an SMS service that helps farmers find out the market prices of crops across the country, helping to eliminate middlemen. These are just a few examples of the innovations happening in Kenya, with products that often employ simple technologies but have high development impacts in a broad range of communities. Further, the use of these simple technologies ensures that services are available to the majority of the population, including those who may find it difficult to access basic services.
Mobile Innovation as an Engine of Socio-Economic Development
It can be argued that the ability to cause a socio-economic impact is one of the key determinants for the success of a startup; those that solve real problems for many people are able to scale faster. MPESA, the service that some say put Kenya on the innovation map and from which many developers take their cue, achieved this by creating a platform that makes it cheaper, safer, and faster to send money across the country.
These problem solving approaches to innovation augment the development goals of the Kenyan government. The contribution of startups, and the incubators where these startups are nurtured, have been recognized by the government, which continues to prioritize an enabling environment for innovation ecosystems through implementation of the Kenya ICT Master-plan. Even still, our interactions with tech entrepreneurs in Kenya have revealed that government support for the fledgling innovation scene is still lacking. As a researcher, I have been helping to identify areas of support that could benefit startups and the greater tech ecosystem. Through collaboration between government and developers (public-private partnerships) it is possible to improve the lives of the population while enabling startups to profit from their innovations.
Our Preliminary Findings
Our case study seeks to understand the thriving mobile innovation sector in Kenya, particularly the factors that make mobile innovation attractive to developers. We also want to know whether openness or protection of knowledge is necessary to promote mobile innovation and the sustainability of mobile tech startups.
For mobile developers in Kenya, intellectual property protection does not offer a safe haven guaranteeing the commercialization of a product to the exclusion of all others. As such, we are finding that 58% of the startups we have interviewed have not employed any intellectual property protection methods for their applications and that 26% have registered copyrights on their coding. When asked how they deal with competitors and ‘copy cats,’ the developers we have interviewed stated that they do so by constantly innovating to meet the changing needs of the population. For startups that offer customized solutions, some have stated that they maintain a competitive edge by leveraging open source technologies to develop mobile applications, which in turn saves costs for the client.
Equally, over the course of our research, we have noted that these mobile startups develop applications in order to come up with a better product or to develop a revolutionary app that addresses the needs of those around them. We are finding that this perspective creates a form of competition between entrepreneurs to develop the best ways to solve specific problems facing the average person. While this raises questions as to the ability of startups to scale – often when very similar products already exist on the market – the principle of each startup is that they have to ‘innovate or die’ and that the socio-economic benefits will accrue to both the consumer and the developer of the most innovative product.
Despite the lack of formal protection, mobile tech startups are on the rise, following the corresponding demand for mobile solutions. The latest trends in internet penetration and mobile subscriptions have shown that mobile platforms could serve as a base for any service or product sold in the Kenyan market. The Communications Authority of Kenya reported that, as of June 2016, 90% of Kenyans owned a mobile phone and that 37.7 million out of 44 million Kenyans were internet users, with majority accessing it through their mobile phones. The statistics show that mobile applications are a ready market for tech startups operating in any sector in Kenya. One can only hope that in the same way startups are enthusiastic to provide solutions via mobile platforms, that the government will embrace these disruptive technologies.