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More Than Meets the Eye: In Conversation With Mark Kaigwa

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Mark Kaigwa is a digital strategist, consultant, speaker, writer and self-proclaimed "power networker." Nairobi-based Mark makes it his business to keep absolutely up to date with the developments of the technology and communications sectors and uses his expert knowledge to help businesses, start-ups and non-profits to launch into the thrilling environment of African entrepreneurialism. Ahead of his keynote speech at eLearning Africa 2013, we interrupted his busy schedule to get some insider tips from the very heart of Kenya's thriving technology scene.

By Alicia Mitchell

So, what makes Africa buzz like nowhere else? Kaigwa has no doubt about the answer:

"The one central point that everything revolves around is the mobile phone." Currently standing at 750,000,000, African mobile subscriptions are set to hit one billion by 2015.[i] "The role that [mobile] plays in accelerating or changing the landscape for people is the most important part of the equation … mobile penetration is one of the things that distinguishes this market."

One of the most globally known mobile success stories to come out of Africa in recent years is M-pesa, Safaricom's mobile-phone-based microfinancing and money-transfer service. Kaigwa himself has spoken widely on the M-pesa revolution, which saw Kenyans transferring an average of US$1.4 billion each month in 2012.[ii] M-pesa is an innovative answer to specific African circumstances and a great story of Kenyan tech success. So, what's the next big thing?

Nairobi has been creating an international name for itself as a hotspot for game-changing initiatives such as the iHub, m:lab, and Nailab, and this, says Mark, is indicative of where the Continent is headed. "[Mpesa] is owned by a large corporate organisation … so it's not the best example of what innovation looks like. Innovation doesn't necessarily happen in the corridors or boardrooms of organisations like Safaricom: We should expect and anticipate innovation from the hubs, labs, and accelerators."

Although there are many fantastic projects out there, Mark insists that the real story is an atmosphere of change with a unique African context. "In the seven years that M-pesa has been around, we've seen a transformation that's led to an influx of incredible talent and the entrenchment of user-centred design here. Now people don't come with preconceived notions and a blueprint made in Boston or San Francisco.

"We have hundreds, if not thousands, of pilot projects: health, manufacturing, 3D printing, education … you name it. Some last a year, two years, or three years, and some are past proof of concept – saying 'yes, we can scale this'. The more you have an atmosphere where things like this are happening, the higher the likelihood that you're not going to get an M-pesa, but something greater and possibly in a field or sector that needs it the most."

Mark points to the two sides of the famed Kenyan tech scene that are contributing to its high profile. "There's the organic side, and then there's the more high-level side. The Kenyan tech scene, Africa's so-called 'Silicon Savanah-to-be', is a promising market, but we have more than meets the eye."

The construction of the Konza Techno City, the Kenyan government's focus on ICT and local content, and sustained efforts to raise support and encourage large businesses and blue-chip companies to come into the country are only half of a bigger picture. [Read more about Kenyan ICT policy and leadership here.]

"The other is the more organic side of the coin, with hubs and labs investing in entrepreneurs and the very early stages of start-ups. It's creating an atmosphere where great talent is growing and thriving; good ideas and strong problems are being turned into business opportunities; and investors are finding out what it takes to get involved in an African country.

"People assume that it's more of the high-level stuff that makes change happen. I really believe, though, that it's the organic stuff, initiated by the community and on the fringes – the stuff that might not have been on the government's radar previously. This is what's really going to transform our country and the rest of the East African region, if not the whole Continent."

Later this month, Kaigwa will be speaking on African self-reliance at the BMZ's (the German Federal Ministry for Economic and Cooperation Development) second Future Forum in Berlin.

What role does he see for international government and investors in Africa?

"There's plenty of room, plenty of problems and plenty of challenges that are going to need smart people to tackle them.

"We are in a very unique place, but you can never stop learning, especially with how far we still have to go. Shared experiences, in both directions, set the tone for sharing ideas and potential partnerships. We can learn what we have in common and what we don't, and I might discover what I have to learn from the Berlin scene, and Nairobi could probably teach Berlin a thing or two as well.

"However, sometimes I feel that dealing with governments can be very high level: a lot of handshakes, exchanging of flags and books, and that's awesome. But what does the ecosystem have to gain? What are the incentives for a Kenyan entrepreneur to work with a developer based in Berlin? … Is there an incentive for working together and forging partnerships? What's the government doing to make it easier for this to happen?"

And finally, what is the secret behind Mark's prolific personal success?

"I've understood some essentials about good communication and branding and have taken some of those concepts to invest in my own personal brand by really connecting with entrepreneurs (young and old) and with investors. I set out to meet people and make an impression.

"The exposure part has been a continuous experiment. Nothing is written in stone. History is ahead of you, and it's up to you to make it. With this mindset, there is no problem with making mistakes. Fear of failure and rejection is diminished because no one else has set the expectation for you to fall below. You set your own expectations."

Mark Kaigwa will be giving a keynote speech at the Wednesday evening opening plenary session of eLearning Africa 2013. To find out more about the Conference, please visit www.elearning-africa.com.

Mark Kaigwa on Twitter: twitter.com/mkaigwa
www.mark.co.ke

[i] http://graphic.com.gh/Business-News/mobile-subscriptions-in-africa-to-hit-one-billion-by-2015.html

[ii] http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/news/Kenya-MPesa-transactions-rise-despite-high-charges/-/2558/1728544/-/2urcv1z/-/index.html

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