Nairobi's light-tech revolution
I had to chuckle when I saw this headline on a Sunday New York Times story about technological innovation in Kenya. Nairobi the next Palo Alto? Relatively few Kenyans have Internet access, and the bloggers, computer programmers and self-proclaimed tech geeks I've met in Nairobi complain of slow, expensive Internet connections (although these reportedly are getting better) and thick bureaucracies that stifle innovation.
But as the hub of East Africa Nairobi does not lack for sharp, tech-savvy minds, and this story points out some of the more innovative projects under way here. The overwhelming majority of them are relatively low-tech -- or, more accurately, light-tech. Programmers are devising cheap, simple applications for cell phones, which sell for as little as $30 here and are far more commonly used than email, land lines and even bank accounts.
Safaricom, the leading mobile phone operator, has cemented its market share with Mpesa, a first-in-the-world service that lets people transfer money via text message. Celtel, the mobile phone company I use, has an array of services available by text message -- foreign exchange rates, commodity prices, Nairobi Stock Exchange listings, movie times. There are also services that let farmers in far-flung areas learn the prevailing market prices for their goods, so they don't get gouged by middlemen.
I'm trying to sell my car, and earlier on Sunday, before I saw this story, I happened to be at Nairobi's weekly used-car bazaar, a free-for-all market with hundreds of vehicles. A group of 20-somethings were advertising a free trial for a text-messaging service that lets sellers list their cars. Buyers need only text-message a keyword, like "Toyota" or a model year, and they immediately get back as many listings as they want. The whole thing was remarkably simple and innovative -- and sure enough, when I looked way down at the fine print on the bottom of the flyer, I saw that the service was being offered by Google.
So it made sense that the folks at Google, which recently opened an office in Kenya, tell the Times that they're looking at a slightly different kind of tech revolution as the company gets a toehold in Africa. It's not about replicating the success they've had in the wired world, but finding ways to improve tried-and-true services that people already use, like the chaotic Sunday car bazaar.
"Sure, we want to bring existing products into this market," Chris Kiagiri, a Google technology officer in Nairobi, was quoted as saying. "But we also want to organize information locally in a way we haven’t done elsewhere."