The Great Digital Leap Forward in Africa

IHub is an oasis of modern order in the otherwise so chaotic Kenyan capital Nairobi. Absorbed on their screens and with headphones strapped on, young technologists work on new apps. A football table gives some relaxation. Rachel Gichinga of iHub orders an espresso at the bar. “Coffee is an essential part of the digital age,” she laughs. Previously Kenyans hardly drank coffee. Nowadays middle class youths hang around in coffee shops with free wifi.

At iHub, technological innovations which find following worldwide are being devised. Africa slowly shakes off the image of being the most backward continent. The continent that had for so long been characterized as a lost one, is now evolving into a global trendsetter for innovative applications in communication, banking, agriculture and other sectors.

Kenya is spearheading this evolution . It first began in 2007 with M-pesa, an easy way to transfer money using the mobile phone.  M-pesa caused a small revolution: 31 percent of Kenya’s gross domestic product is now going through mobile phones and there are now eighty similar systems in and outside Africa set. As of recent, the mobile can also be used to save money. In Kenya, also as a first, a rechargeable smart card to provide health insurance for the poor was introduced. “We are working on communication for farmers, herders and students”, says Rachel Gichinga.

Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, said recently during a visit to Kenya, “Nairobi is emerging as a serious technological center and may be the captain of Africa”. He visited iHub among others. In the glass and concrete building, which lies along one of the busiest roads of Nairobi, iHub occupies two floors. “This is the breeding ground for web designers and social entrepreneurs. Here the ideas are born,” says an employee.

Director of iHub is Jimmy Gitonga. “Africa always lagged behind, we always heard that we needed technological help from outside. But in the digital age we are at par with other parts of the world”, he says confidently. “Before, we always heard that Africa had not gone through the industrialization age. I tell you, Africa skips the industrial revolution. We jump straight into the digital age. ”

Kenya got in March a new dynamic president: Uhuru Kenyatta (51). “The transition from the analogue to the digital age,” said Kenyatta about his election. He promises that all children going to primary school next year will have a free computer on solar energy. A newspaper responded by publishing a cartoon: a malnourished child takes a bite on a computer.

“A silly cartoon”, says Rachel Gichinga. “We will never make progress if we first need to ensure that every child has enough to eat. The plan of Kenyatta is great. Although it would be better to give tablets to the students. They are easier to use and cheaper than computers”.

Access to education is still a priority for every African. One third of the Kenyan budget is allocated to education. The government introduced free education over ten years ago, allowing additional hundreds of thousands of children go to school, but the quality decreases. According to a recent survey 90 percent of the teachers cannot handle computers. “We are working on an easy education program for the tablets,” says Rachel. “With the new technology, anything is possible.”

In the year 2000, two hundred thousand Kenyans were connected to the internet, now they are more than a million. In a way Kenya has skipped the computer: 30 percent of Kenyans have internet not on a computer but on the mobile phone. “We here at iHub want to develop simple apps for mobile phones,” says Rachel. “Such as: I lost my cow. Is there anybody with information about the lost beast”. Another example:”We are working on an app so that farmers can get fast information on current prices of vegetables in Nairobi. That gives them control over the prices they receive for their products. ”

Kenya is planning to build Konza Techno City, a futuristic business city. In 2017 the ICT sector is expected to contribute 25 percent to the gross domestic product. This ambition sometimes seems too high. During the elections in March 2013, the digital counting system began to multiply results eightfold. It did no good to the positive digital image of Kenya. “The good and bad of Kenya came together during the elections: a good digital counting system but run by corrupt officials,” quips iHub director Jimmy Gitonga.

“There will still be for a while two Kenya’s co-exist: the traditional and the modern”, says Gitonga. “In Africa we are still in the phase of nation building. We’re still searching for who we are, and how as tribes we will live together”

In recent years in the cities, Sheng developed. Sheng is a youth language with influences from Kiswahili, English and tribal languages. “We at iHub want to introduce Sheng as an official language in the computer. In that way, we work for unity and help to develop a Kenyan nation. The digital age helps us to do that. “

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