INTERVIEW: Mark Kaigwa on Kenya’s Tech Startup scene

Kenya has received a lot of attention and investment in its technology startup scene. Yet so far we are yet to see a truly Kenyan startup – apart from Ushahidi – that either dominates on the continent or has a successful exit deal.

Mark Kaigwa is one of Kenya’s foremost people in technology circles and is a partner at Afrinnovator and the African Digital Art Network. He is the Nairobi Ambassador for Sandbox Network – an organisation that aims to develop and mentor young exceptional leaders worldwide.

He will be talking at Mobile Web Africa 2012 in Johannesburg at the end of the month.

HumanIPO caught up with him on his speech, the event and the work they do at Afrinnovator.

HumanIPO: There’s a lot of attention, venture and seed capital money flowing into Kenya’s tech startup scene. Is this justified?

Mark Kaigwa: It’s justified. I think that Kenya and East Africa broadly are at a point where a transition of sorts is happening between corporations looking at the continent and asking “where’s the best place to start and grow into the rest of the continent.” South Africa’s going to be on their radar always being a power economy of the continent, but Kenya’s earning a seat at the table for technology and staking its claim to the title alongside Nigeria and Ghana in West Africa.

What do you think has created this “hype” about Kenya’s tech startup scene considering only Ushahidi and perhaps a handful others can be considered Kenya’s global technology successes?

Economically, Kenya’s always had some things running in its favour including being a regional hub and the home of several large private sector and non governmental organisations. This as well as the economic climate of the country and the recent technology surge in crowdsourcing technology and mobile money led to our present state. The more the world continues to hear, the more we continue to get into the spotlight and we will need a contender to rise and go through either a liquidation event (successful deal exit or IPO) to prove the landscape’s credibility.

What about technology skills in Kenya, are there enough of them to match the investment in-flow?

Not just yet. We’re seeing several different kinds of models where investment comes with capacity building and training, but not seeing this necessarily matched by skilled professionals leaving their comfort zones in larger corporations to attempt the startup life and world in Kenya. Consequently there’s a mix of global talent from the east and west that sets up shop here. All in all a competitive landscape is something we want to see and this mix of talent won’t necessarily lead to a lack of opportunity but hopefully a rise in the caliber of Kenyan entrepreneurs as they sharpen their skills.

What was the inspiration / motivation behind Afrinnovator?

Initially it was to create a “Mashable for Africa” but over time Will Mutua and myself found that this wasn’t our strongest suit and we were much stronger in long-form content and much better thought out and researched pieces at a lower frequency than most sites. This strategy of putting Africa on the map by sharing a picture of a different Africa is the mantra that drives most of what we do today. We’ve just published our first bookInnovative Africa: The New Face of Africawhich was written by Will Mutua and Mbwana Alliy and that shows the transition we’ve made into a player in the research and intelligence space rather than a mere tech content player.

What trends are you seeing with regards to tech startups across the continent? Beyond mobile phones?

I think it’s very early days but tablets are really interesting. For me the “maker” space of where Africans put together technology themselves or respond to African needs is something we need to see and hear more of. There’s at least four countries in Africa each with locally assembled tablet computers and now we’ll see some interesting ideas pop up next year. Besides that I think in general once we see digital migration and spectrum freed up we should expect the long tail of content both in broadcast and web to ring true. With niches such as vernacular media and hyperlocal news becoming realities. 2013′s a year we need to see some traction in terms of a series of small and medium sized successes and hold thumbs for a “home run” in the African technology space. It’s going to be our best year yet I imagine.

Kaigwa will be speaking at the upcomingMobile Web Africa 2012 event taking place at The Venue Melrose Arch, on November 27-29. His talk will be titled Kenya’s Reputation As Africa’s Silicon Savannah: Conceited or confirmed?

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