It's just three days into the month when I meet Sabrina Dar, Cisco's new General Manager for East Africa, which makes me the first journo to interview her in her new role. She's been based out of Nairobi for only three months, and brings with her 14 years of experience in Cisco to the regional office. She's bustling with excitement, and itching with new ideas. She hopes that her experience and network across the company paired with the fantastic opportunity she sees in the region will be a great match.
Sabrina sees opportunity in East Africa around three areas. Innovation is the first opportunity. "It's not like anything I have seen across Western Europe, the Middle East and Russia where I have spent much of my time. The innovation labs, the iHubs and the iLabs, where you are bringing together, not just entrepreneurs, but mentors from Industry, funding from venture capitalists, that is very unique," she says.
She mentions talking to Cisco CEO, John Chambers, on the amount of innovation here, and exploring on how the company can tap into the same. Chambers believes that majority of Cisco's innovation in the next five years will come from outside the US.
The company has invested in research and development in India, including Bangalore, which is now the firm's second largest R&D centre. Additionally, the company is investing into moving some of its manufacturing role outside the US.
The GM feels that Cisco's good working relationships with service providers can enable solutions to tap into labs such as Strathmore's iLab. In such labs, it she expects Cisco will become more prominent than they have been in recent years.
The second opportunity is solutions been deployed by some of Cisco's biggest clients in the region. These include "pioneering solutions" being undertaken on by financial services, especially under service providers, which is something Sabrina says is not happening anywhere else in Africa. Other ground breaking solutions include collaboration in the cloud computing scene with service providers, with the firm and a number of service providers set to introduce what she promises to be interesting solutions in coming months.
The third opportunity that keeps the new GM excited is country transformation agendas. These include such agendas in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Ethiopia. Vision 2030 in Kenya and the scope which it tries to cover is of interest, especially the broadband strategy and its five pillars.
"Whether you are in the industry and looking at it from infrastructure point of view, through to demand generation, through to engaging in policy, it's a great way for government to be setting agenda to the industry and to entrepreneurs; setting how they want people to gravitate and to move this agenda forward. I genuinely believe it is going to get off paper and into reality, " she says.
Sabrina has seen Cisco embed into the 'fabric of society' in other countries, and she is really keen on implementing the same here. She explains, rather than a US company merely setting up here, it is about the company being part of what makes East Africa great, playing a role in the region becoming the hub of Africa in technology. Kenya is aiming at getting ICT to contribute to 35 percent of gross domestic product, up from 5 percent. This translates to Cisco making investments and partnering across all fronts of society.
Cisco Connect, happening this week, is among the first signs of Cisco's dedication in the region. The event brings in partners such as IBM, Dimension Data and Copy Cat, with keynote speakers including ICT Cabinet Secretary, Fred Matiang'i, Safaricom Director of Corporate Affairs, Nzioka Waita and Communications Commission of Kenya Universal Service Fund Assistant Director, Susan Mochache.
Speakers from Cisco will include David Meads, Cisco Vice President for Africa who will open the conference, while Howard Charney, one of Cisco's greatest speakers, will give an expert talk on the Internet of things. The Internet of Things is a $14 trillion opportunity expected to be brought about by 50 billion devices expected to connect to the Internet by 2020. also expected is another of Cisco's great presenter, Den Sullivan who is Head of Architectures and Enterprise, Emerging Markets .
The event will have 32 breakout sections targeted at a variety of sectors including service providers, enterprise and public sector. "You have got sessions of what relevant technologies Cisco can can bring to market in Kenya tomorrow, " she says.
The second day has 20 sections specific to service provider technology, data centres, collaboration and enterprise networking. Enterprise networking looks at the latest in security, service provider WiFi, video and collaboration.
"There's no reason for anyone not to make the time and effort to come and have a look. The sessions are deliberately 45 to 60 minutes long, so that they are tangible, you take away real key facts and information, you take away contacts from across the industry to go and look at how you can increase business relevance in your company, " she says.
The event will also feature a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) celebration for networking professionals and networking academy students.
Additionally, there will be a women in technology session. Not enough is done to bring women in technology together, and this track will bring the senior ladies across the technology industry.
The CXO dinner will be an intimate, peer to peer networking affair and will be about sharing experience and relationships and taking messages from keynote speakers in the morning and striving to drive that across the senior level.
Business and IT Spending:
Formerly known as the Cisco Expo, the event has been rebranded across the globe to reflect the merging of technology and business roles. This is with Gartner and other reports are talking about the likelihood of IT spending transitioning out of IT and into the business.
The proliferation of bring your own device, and technology that is easier to use are driving demand for collaboration and cloud services. Businesses will continue to make more of their own IT decisions, and if IT does not understand their relevance, IT will end up being left out. IT have to therefore align with the firm's lines of business and to be involved in how IT decisions are made.
Cisco believes taking an architectural approach is the best and most cost effective way forward." You don't want several decisions being made in isolation, without the network being a platform upon which these decisions are build, and the more intelligence you put in the network, the more you scale quickly. You do not want to build capacity every time you are making a silo decision in the business, you want that capacity to scale up when your business needs to respond to customer demand. That's where cloud computing comes in, " says Sabrina
Connect is, therefore, meant to bring the fact that business and IT are merging together. The technical sessions will still go into the nitty gritty details.
The sales directors, marketing directors and other staff running the firm commercially are more demanding on the technology they need, and if they can be accelerated, then that's more profitability for the company.
Cisco has just run a successful CFO forum in South Africa, and is looking to replicate the same in Kenya in the next three to four months. "The more the CFO understands that IT is an accelerator and enabler of business, rather than a cost centre, the more likely we are to have conversations around bringing and enabling that business in IT. Finance is also enabling more consumption and the moving of IT from capital expenditure to operational expenditure is something CFOs are likely to get and will be driving. They need to understand the innovative financing solutions and cloud models being brought by IT vendors and partners, " she adds.
Cisco has lots of experience on how the region can drive ICT to lead to competitiveness. Research demonstrates broadband connectivity leads a to connected population. A connected population drives up their innovation in the digital economy, resulting in a competitive economy. There's more data from Gartner and the World Economic Forum showing the co-relation between connectivity and economic growth.
Sabrina is passionate that East Africa can lead the rest of the continent in driving the technological agenda and competitiveness, especially with government support. She wants to see innovation from East Africa spread across the world.
Service provider WiFi and mobility will be areas of interest for Cisco, as mobile providers focus on rolling out last mile solutions and monetising the same. 12 out of the last 20 acquisitions made by Cisco have been made in the mobile sector. Enabling the firms to provide such solutions quickly is something that the firm is focusing on.
The data centre space is also another area of focus. Sabrina says she's been pleasantly surprised by the capability and capacity that exists in the data centre space in the country, especially in the financial sector. She expects the same to catch on with the manufacturing and retail sectors in the country.
Such data centre capacity would be of immense benefit in the public sector. Benefits here would be enablement of some of government policies through the cloud, such as devolution, where solutions can quickly scale across counties.
Collaboration through seamless integration of telephone and video would be of benefit both across the enterprise and public sector.
Sabrina is also delighted at Cisco's partnership with Safaricom, saying the firm is looking at being "true partners" with them by driving solutions to the market. Though not giving much in details, Sabrina indicates that Safaricom will launch a hosted product in the future. Cisco has hosted collaboration and infrastructure offerings with providers in Europe, and looks to bring such offerings in East Africa.
There's also an opportunity in infrastructure as a service, which would be of benefit to the enterprise and small businesses too. The public sector can also offer healthcare and education on such a platform. (See: Safaricom to offer managed networks)
Sabrina Dar's background:
Born of Kenyan parents, but not having lived here, Sabrina still benefits from familiarity of the regional culture. She's a qualified accountant and has worked in seven functions. She started at Cisco putting business cases together and focusing on profitability of Cisco's partners and making sure the partners were sustainable and profitable businesses.
She then worked on business development and strategy planning for the firm across Europe, Middle East, Russia and Africa. From this, she was able to understand how Cisco makes very large strategic decisions, where they are willing to risk, willing to invest and what information is needed to make such decisions.
From here, she went on to join the United Kingdom commercial and enterprise business unit, particularly working with innovating the firm's partners, helping them go to market and making them profitable.
She then led the marketing for London 2012 (Olympics), where she built a business case delivering what customers rated as the best customer experience delivered by the firm. 5000 customers and partners went through the Cisco House at the edge of the London 2012 park. This saw her get nominated for the Asian Businesswoman of the year.
Her most recent role was working with Cisco's partners and commercial business in Europe, Africa, Middle East and Russia. Here, she ensured that Cisco partners were well enabled .
Sabrina says she would like to bring that far-reaching breadth in Africa.
Dennis Mbuvi has been writing at CIO East Africa Magazine and CIO.co.ke since May 2010. His key focus is the use of technology to solve day to day business challenges and product reviews. Mbuvi has been invited to speak at various IT, Telecom and Media events in the region. He was also a keynote speaker at the inaugural Joomla day in Kenya talking on possibilities of the Joomla Content Management System. Mbuvi holds a B.Sc in Computer Science degree from Kenyatta University. He is on Twitter as @denniskioko