Is There A Case For Kanjokya Street As Uganda’s Silicon Valley ?

Silicon Valley, meet Kanjokya Street. Your brother. Your brother from Africa.

Remember the one Uncle Bob told you about after his visit to Africa? Yes, he is now a long parade route of startups just like you. He's got the street cred and is smart.

I want to tell you more about him. Forget about that gender sensitive hothead. Will you, please? In case you insist, his sister is prospering from the other side. If I delved into that story it’d be another red herring.

Apparently you have other brothers all over this neighbourhood. I hear most could be alleged. As if tying on you. For example you have in Nigeria, Lagos’ Yabacon Valley, the hispter’s alley and Ojuelegba township famed for turning startup hustle into successes.
Then in Kenya, Nairobi’s Ngong Road that houses iHub, the unofficial headquarters of technology in Africa, and by extension the official home of Silicon Savannah. Oi. Then down yonder, in Cape Town, there is Silicon Cape. And many others who are even yet to be born, like Konza City in Kenya and Hope City in Ghana.

Maybe, you could say, I am trying so hard to forge relations. But somehow, these brothers of yours either add the title Silicon or Valley to their indigenous names. I am not sure that makes up for the absence of blood relation. But for sure, a name carries a lot of weight back here. Me still thinks it’s a silly con.

Anyway ask me about your real brother Kanjokya. Without a second thought, I would gladly tell you of how you two are striking in semblance. Even though your brother doesn’t have blue ticks to his Twitter handle, yet. He basks like you: with hipsters, hackers and hustlers building the next big software solutions (maybe the next M-Pesa and a bunch of M-stuff) and also trying to run the media... must I say new media? I’ll save you the telenovela bit but in short: Kanjokya is a pantheon of issues ranging from business to relationships to academia. And somehow nerds are at the center of it all.

A State Of Mind

Gone are the days of geographical limitations. Great cities were located on water ways because, water was the easy way to trade economically. Jinja is a great example. After these limitations were broken, the center of influence withered steadily. Decentralization gained.

Today you can make a great city anywhere. As long as you have the right mix of talent and financial resources. We all know that is one of the major reasons why you (Silicon Valley) grew exponentially in the first place. Uncle Ried of Linkedin, says,

“Silicon Valley isn’t a location, it’s a state of mind.”

Thinking different begins in the mind. Then doing is the immediate action that follows.

Once upon a time. The rebels. The crazy ones. The rejects. The end.

There, I just penned one of the greatest haikus to the unholy trinity responsible for what Silicon Valley is today because thy kingdom of startup glory-dom belongs to them crazy ones. I remember Steve even held this irreverent kind of people in high regard: the "Traitorous Eight"; the "PayPal Mafia"; those hoodlums who nobody seems to understand only until they make leeway into the mainstream.

You know those friends who you have no idea what they do. They turn up at the office, fire up YouTube and shoo the day away, just like that. Their parents are forever left guessing what these kiddos could be doing with their lives other than continuously jostling with 'A', 'S', 'D' on their keyboards. And If all goes well, anyway, after a few months/years their bank accounts could transform from small to shapeless. That is the life of a typical startup in summary.

The People and Environment

Kanjokya is home of startups of all kinds be they in construction, real estate, policy and law, media, advertising, and most notably in software development. Nobody seems to understand these startups when they are setting out in those neatly organized tiny offices.
It’s not about the buildings. Although nowadays they come fashioned in all kinds; glass, porcelain, marble, fine china. It’s about the people in those buildings that make Kanjokya, Kanjokya — same as the people who make Silicon Valley, Silicon Valley.

In fact Kanjokya is an enclave wrought with a colonial road network and building style. It looks like Kololo but one that hasn’t yet been thronged by ambitious investors and government turncoats. It borders suave yet looks humble save for the recent development of commercial space. There is a cool pop about it. An environ only nerds would truly understand. A rare spot of fresh breath in the maddening city of Kampala. But should one crave a coffee, it’s just a stroll away, and so is an emergency visit to the dentist.

The adjacent streets have been taken up by big non-governmental organizations and accomplished business entities. When traffic spills out of control at peak hours along the main roads of Kira and Acacia, Kanjokya has the luxury of escaping such because of the several access and connection routes it has.
This is what Jack — Jack Dorsey — was talking about. The organisation of a city’s transport routes correlate with how successful the startups in that city become. It’s more like a startup’s product being a function of the communication structures (roads, fiber et al) in its home town. Abeg, you just can’t reference to @Jack without using the [email protected] sign.

Kanjokya St. is a place where you can find some order from the chaos the greater Kampala suburbia has become. Just like the coveted Valley, it’s not located near Harvard University, but the "Harvard of Africa"— Makerere University. Still in that same Eastern direction lies Mulago Hospital which is the national referral hospital. Then within a stone’s throw are five star shopping malls and distinguished local and foreign corps. There is simply an enormous supply of talent from within close proximity. From creative m-Admen, technicians, media personnel, engineers, doctors, name them.

Some of the richest people in Uganda live in the neighbouring suburbia of Bukoto, Kamwokya, Kololo and Ntinda.

This combo of talent + money bags is known too well in the Valley, and its results are in trillions of dollars.

Kiddo, look, before the whole smartphone revolution sprung, the real hustle was in Kanjokya.

The Rich History

People like Simon Kaheru were setting afoot of their young companies there, a then combatant and celebrated journalist, Andrew Mwenda, came to you first when he quit the mainstream to set his weekly smoking hot political revelations in The Independent Magazine.

Then there's Kin Kariisa. I wouldn’t have known him if it wasn’t for his alleged involvement in procuring sophisticated surveillance software (on behalf of the government) according the Hacking Team’s exposé in 2015. Only to find out that he is a powerful young man with a powerful story, like one of those confounding child prodigy stories.
And many more other great people grinding on that 0.92km stretch called Kanjokya street. Let’s not forget that Uganda’s first tech hub, Hive Colab, opened its doors in this strategic location close to a decade ago.

The Culture

You see your brother is well-cultured. The Africanness in him doesn’t allow him to be as idiosyncratic as you often are. The reason is because the locals here are largely an identity group of people. It’s better to do your stuff and let your success make noise for you.

About 90% of the startups fail around here, almost immediately, and that’s why it’s potentially more damaging to be seen as a failure than to actually fail. That’s why there’s a lot of secrecy around here. You may be forgiven to think that startups here are exclusive dealers in contraband which is not the case.

The million dollar question is: If you and your Ugandan brother enjoy strikingly similar salient characteristics, why is he not even close to hitting the success button?

It’s important to note that from the mid 50’s since you were born, it’s only 15 companies that account for 97% of your cumulative annual profits. Just 15 companies. Yet thousands of this and that startups keeping popping up as a proportionate number makes way to the graveyard — in the Valley. It’s bare knuckles back there.

The Ugandan tech ecosystem is too young to have figured out yet what the long game is. But wait. We have been sold to the story of leapfrogging. That we skipped the now hackneyed systems such as the Telephone Rolodex system straight to the "social mobile digital tomorrow". That we folded decades of technological progress into this little quantifiable time. Anyways why wouldn’t we also fold the number of years it took the valley to break even into a little quantifiable time?

Here are a few reasons why we’re not prospering even if compared in compound, but not absolute, terms:

The Belief System Is Broken

I will explain this point in short bursts of different examples. Allow me to reintroduce this paragraph:
Remember the brother Uncle Bob told you about after his visit to Africa? Yes, sadly he is NOT a long parade route of Venture Capital firms and Angel investors like you have become.

The law of marginal utility of Silicon Valley states that as more and more startups are started up in a place, more and more investment firms set afoot in that place. Not for Kanjokya. Perhaps startups here either don’t believe in angels (investors) or the angels themselves have deliberately distanced themselves away from the space. This only leaves startups bereft of financing.

The kind of investors that push dollar signs into startups are not your conventional financial institutions. They have no collateral to base on but rather they invest in the quality of teams behind the startups. They’re often former successful startup founders or those with liberal and updated tastes in investment.

The successful startup founders from Kanjokya are either too quiet and too busy deferring their investments in more secure ventures like real estate or they have been picked up for juicy and big corporate jobs. Those are the kinds of tunes of dilemma Kanjokya dances to everyday.

A startup begets a startup. Back here it’s a startup, if really lucky, begets ambitions of becoming a traditional company. That’s if the winds of disruption don’t blow through the former successful startups. This only sums up to one thing: lack of community and lack of meaningful relations within the ecosystem.

When Steve Jobs made the widely acclaimed return to Apple in 1997. He was shocked when Andy Grove, then CEO of Intel extended a hand in mentoring the mid aged CEO. Recall at this time, Apple was on a verge of a bankruptcy. And do you know what they say about failing companies: stay away from them. Failure is contagious. Contrary to popular opinion, Andy, as a Schopenhauerian, possibly gave Jobs that one piece of advice that saw Apple turn its fortunes around to being the mostly valuable company that it is today.

Relationships. Relationships. Relationships.

The other day I was dismayed to learn that a major bank located just under the nose of Kanjokya was using banking software developed from Nigeria. This is not to discredit the West African brothers in any way. But their system as if patched together crashed again and again costing the bank invaluable resources, among them being the flying in of Nigerian ‘consultants’ to assess the situation and administer quick fixes. Yet, just in a heartbeat, they could walk (on foot) to Kanjokya and hire a cloud service company, an ISP and competent engineers. Probably even at cheaper costs. But see where we are. Nobody believes in nobody. I even doubt the startups look at themselves as prime movers and the next renaissance men and women.

I like this quote from Liz Strauss,

“unfortunately the world cannot convene a meeting to decide your value. The decision is entirely yours.”

And that is believing in the power of relationships (even with outright competition breathing down your necks) and above all believing in your damn selves!

Corporate World Eating Startups

Ugandan startups have been getting a fair amount of international press since the first major hackathon (garage48) in 2011. Even prior to that, research was already ringing death knells to corporations. Especially those in the service dominated economy that were not ready to adjust their product offerings to suit modern trends.

So here is what corporations did. They would steal any feasible idea developed on the side and quickly weave it in their fabric, and front their legal team in case one raised a voice. But that was brash and cold. So what they are doing is more like partnering with startups. Through allowing them use their gateways for a revenue sharing model, where they take the majority anyway, or through seeding funds in a startup. If a startup makes it, then there is a high chance that the corporation acquires it. Whatever way you see it corporate-ware is eating startups. The same way software ate hardware in the Valley.

It wouldn’t be so bad only if the talent was spared. But take a closer look. The startup founders who were in the global news a couple of years ago have either taken on corporate jobs with big banks, international software development firms and NGOs, or have given up on these startup things and moved on. Guess what kind of precedence this leaves behind? Playing it safe.

The Market/The Product

Men lie. Women lie. But numbers don’t lie. If the market is small, then it is. If the aggregate demand is small, then it sure is. If a product lacks a critical mass of users, then it dies. There is no way around it.

We often get caught up in the fetishization of building great products. But for who? Uganda’s population currently stands at about 37 million with a wanting middle class of about 1 million people compared to Nigeria’s that is about 183 million with a middle class of about 57 million. Who would you then expect to compete with an App developed from a better market, even if it’s seemingly crappier than yours?

But the interesting bit is that East Africa as a hub has over 153 million people. Just over the 150 million mark the Lean Startup architect Steve Blank recommends as the threshold market size. And what’s interesting is that East Africans adopt products rather easily and quickly. More reason for startups in Kanjokya to focus on regional prospects as they swerve through their initial growth stages.

A product is everything. No product, no business. The grace period of building crappy products and advancing over time wound a long time ago. What people expect nowadays is a product that works like a charm from v0.0.1. Anything short of that leads to doom. But. But there have been a slew of well developed Apps that went nowhere. Of course, this isn’t only privy to Kanjokya but all over the world. Some products work and others don’t, regardless of whether they were technically and aesthetically the same.

I can only prognosticate that this would get better as the market grows or amps its tastes. Because product and market work hand in hand. Whenever, wherever.

I conclude with a pithy aphorism from my good friend Felix Kitaka, popularly known as The Mutambuze (the journeyman). He recounted to me that before the bridge was constructed linking Jinja to Kampala across the Nile, people still crossed anyway. But it was such a hard feat. These days it’s certainly intuitive to swerve across the bridge in high volumes without even noticing or caring what our progenitors went through. The bridge was the foundation.

That’s why if the tech space in Uganda doesn’t have a solid foundation, we shall forever play that we’re young card. Community, to me, is the final manifestation of a mature belief and support system. It is the bridge and is the foundation. To stand up and lobby for opportunities, to hold each other accountable, and above all to dream together.

Note: Special thanks to Joanne Nvannungi for sharing with me Paul Graham’s essay about the possibilities of emulating the success of Silicon Valley elsewhere. My interest in debunking this Kanjokya Street-Silicon Valley rhetoric was piqued henceforth.

Cover Image, The Yellow Stuff (Home Edition) | stttijn