Kenya's startup ecosystem can be considered robust, especially looking across the continent. The country has seen the rise of some of the most recognizable brands and businesses on the continent, and their stories have been told and retold. All this is built around a system of efficient problem-solving innovation.
A number of these startups have popped up out of the various incubators in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu, and gone on to conquer the world. Kuhustle, for example, was set up to connect IT freelancers with those seeking their services. Sendy offers motorbike delivery services that fill the gap left by courier companies. Cladlight's smart jacket increases the visibility of bikers on the road using LED lights embedded in their jackets to show when they want to change lanes or turn. These startups and many others all over Kenya are meeting everyday challenges with robust and scalable solutions.
The growth of this ecosystem seems counter-intuitive, especially considering the lack of investment in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) courses. It's all built from the ground up, with lots of bootstrapping and personal savings. Until recently, banks were unwilling to finance 'ideas', opting for established businesses.
Financing is no longer the constraint it used to be. Banks are more willing to put money in ideas, though the terms are heavily skewed towards established startups looking to scale up rather than those looking to get off the ground.
Startups in Kenya tend to favour function over form. This need to create direction and find a market is a result of the lack of an overall direction from the government and the private sector. The result is a strange breed of startup - solutions-based ventures that understand of the realities the local culture, while at the same time retaining the ability to pivot and deploy almost anywhere in the world.
The gaps resulting from a lack of investment in domestic graduate education for sciences and engineering in Kenya and the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa have seen a few ambitious individuals take up the challenge to innovate groundbreaking products that have turned into viable businesses. Couple this with a growing popularity in technology, and the result is a robust startup ecosystem that is creating demand for skills, especially in technology.It's not an accident that many startup founders are returnees from universities such as Stanford and MIT, and the ones who have had an education in Kenya tend to be largely self-taught in the area they want to build their et
The focus at the moment is the creation of apps and products that change lives and build the economy. Business and commerce are fundamental drivers of this, and the startups that survive are those that can best navigate the difficult world of finding financing and building a user base.
Creating an experience or something that can be talked about and shared seems the nod in most of the existing start-ups backed by a bolder market that upends the status quo thus telling a story that hits on specific challenges being addressed.
The willingness of the population to adapt to new experiences and experiments has also been a big boost for tech to thrive - embracing of M-Pesa in 2005 led to a telecom firm turning into a bank.
M-Pesa turns users' phones into bank accounts banks but now through mobile with the various M-Pesa points created countrywide. This simplified transactions for buying goods and services, paying school fees, sending money to relatives, paying for medical bills, and securing quick and affordable loans among others.
The latter opened doors for more problem solving tech opportunities that have taken the world by storm and proved to the world that when you have a plan, have a mission, when you start from the fundamentals, it is easier to go building new layers upon it.
The high telecom penetration and relatively low levels of formal banking in the country have powered the abilities of the hungry young generation to innovate. This kind of ambition has seen countries world over try replicating the success locally born start-ups are enjoying.
Kenya may not have the best infrastructure or access to cutting edge technologies to support big scale productions, but the environment it offers makes running a business more attractive, and also provides the right ecosystem for tech led growth.
However, as long as investment in science and technology education is lacking, these startups will need to invest in educating their manpower in order to grow. As long as this added cost exists, they may find it hard to grow.