Nerding in Nairobi

A few months travelling, living and hacking in Kenya

Silicon Savannah: Talent

One of the most exciting things about Silicon Valley is the pool of talented and experienced people it has attracted from around the world. This concentration of tech expertise has been going on since the mid-1900s and Kenya isn’t even close to matching it. Nairobi has smart people with technical skill but mostly lacks more senior expertise like large project management, system architecture, salesforce development and product management.

Experience

The biggest challenge to developing expertise in Kenya is the lack of expertise in Kenya. Many of the missing management and technical skills are best (only?) learned from people who have done it before. In San Francisco, when we wanted advice on building a digital advertising sales team we secured as an advisor the founder of a successful ad company a few blocks down the street.

Expats can help provide this expertise but only if they bring relevant experience. Many expats come to work for NGOs and have unrelated backgrounds. Few expats in Kenya have started and successfully exited companies. One person went as far as to say, “a lot of expat founders here wouldn’t have had this opportunity at home. They’re trying to prove to themselves here.”

I think the biggest short term gains will come from the outside:

  • Hands-on investing like Lino practices at i4a will fill in gaps for promising companies.
  • Experienced practitioners in the developed world will provide mentorship.
  • Partnerships and consulting engagements abroad will give exposure to new ideas and techniques.

Education

Kenya’s schools are effective at teaching applied skills but focus on them to a fault. I believe that the rote teaching discourages self-guided learning, creative problem solving and constructive disagreement in the workplace. There is also less emphasis on team projects that teach important planning, communication and collaboration skills. A head start makes a difference – in the course of my formal education I started a company, managed several big projects and acted as a consultant for a real business.

I think there are emerging opportunities to learn outside the formal education system:

  • Leading tech companies like Google are offering internships in Nairobi. Kate had a chance to work with the Nokia Research Centre while in university and Frank interned with Google.
  • Universities and incubators are offering programs that go beyond the book. Conrad Ojiambo of Strathmore University told me about an intensive project-based training course he’s running for computer science students.
  • Self-guided online education is becoming viable. Alex is currently teaching himself Spanish and Frank tuned in to some of the Stanford machine learning course.

Focus

Tech entrepreneurship gets a lot of attention back in California but is only a tiny part of an exciting picture of East African growth. There is a perception among Kenyan business people that other verticals like real estate, tourism and transportation offer better rewards at lower risk. There is a similar perception among some developers that smaller mobile-app projects are a better bet than larger ventures. I’ve been told that many talented people prefer immediate cash from freelancing and even entrepreneurs “pivot quickly towards short-term revenue forgoing long-term opportunity.”

Cultural differences in evaluating risk play a role but, in part, these are rational decisions given real opportunity in other sectors and financing risks in tech. I think it will take the precedent of successful tech exits before these views change.

More than anything else, growing senior talent will take time. People will succeed, fail and share the lessons they learn along the way. Successful exits will attract more local and foreign talent. The learning cycles will be fast – I expect things to evolve a lot in just a few years – but it won’t happen overnight.

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