Sunday, February 26, 2012

For start-ups, tech hub anytime, not Konza city

An impression of the Konza Tochnopolis Park in Malili, Machakos.

PHOTO/FILE An impression of the Konza Tochnopolis Park in Malili, Machakos.  

By KAHENYA KAMUNYU

There has been a lot of talk about Konza City, identified as the possible future Silicon Valley of East Africa and maybe even of Africa.

Tanzania is following up with Raphta City, which more or less follows the Konza City Model.

I would imagine there would be more coming up across the region – one in Uganda and another in Rwanda.

But Konza City does not seem aimed at appealing to the younger developers.

It is modelled to attract only the financially stable companies, primarily from the West or the Far East.

Software developers are flocking in large numbers into tech hubs and this will remain so for the foreseeable future.

So, why are the hubs seemingly being preferred to the bigger tech cities?

If we go back, the story of Silicon Valley had most developers beginning their projects inside their bedrooms or inside their garages.

Google, HP, and a lot of other companies started out this way. It was a cheap way to start out.

Once you had an Internet connection, space to work, a bit of equipment, got your business incorporated and raised some capital, you were good to go.

You slept and worked there, it was home, it was your office, and it worked. Fast-forward to today, and the cost of relocating to Konza City just seems too steep.

To become a resident will not be as easy as paying rent for a low cost office or flat in the city.

You will need a lot more money to gain access; money that could be useful in other aspects of the business like development, marketing or scaling up.

Usually, the romantic view of a start-up is a young person seated in a room somewhere with an Internet connection and a laptop, bashing out code or meeting customer requests. The model has not changed that much when you explore the hub system.

If you have an innovative idea and the smarts to do it, getting into a hub is one of the most practical and cost effective ways to go.

That way, you can gain access to resources that would cost more than a starting developer could afford. With present-day inflationary tendencies, this becomes more of a blessing.

Then there is the aspect of collaborative work. Yes, Konza may offer the same collaborative eco-system, but if you are in Konza, and looking at your costs and time, collaborating may not be as high on your agenda as earning rent and meeting your business objectives would be.

That means a lot of young developers, if they gained access, would risk being isolated from the greater wealth of collective thinking and shared skills.

When I look at the iHub model, it is admirable to see skills being shared and new ideas being developed faster and much better.

Collaborating on ideas is probably one of the best ways to go as the more minds there are on one project, the better the project becomes.

Realising such would be rare in a tech city; which brings out the question of proprietary. When signing up to the iHub, it is mentioned that your skill-set may be requested to assist others who may need it.

This would not work in a proprietary eco-system as the legal work alone would be expensive and complex and would undermine the actual project.

Personally, I believe ideas are free and the best executor is the winner, and that teamwork always wins.

Last year, I was humbled to be invited to speak at the launch of the ICE hub, the first technology hub in Ethiopia. I ended up mediating a proprietary problem they had.

An individual had wanted to join the hub but was demanding that his work should not be discussed, and that he be allowed to build a proprietary business out of the hub.

The resolution was simple. The gentleman had to either come in without the proprietary label or not be allowed to join.

I supported the decision. Coming into a tech hub with a proprietary label would not help in skills transfer, which were badly needed there. Moreover, it would have caused a lot of legal headaches.

In the end, we need a better approach to Konza for it to prove beneficial beyond the residents.

Technology will not grow in a proprietary and expensive eco-system. In today’s world, that is a pipe dream. Instead, a low cost open and easy model will work.

As modelled, Konza City could end up isolating people – having the financially able there and everyone else excluded.

But again, it may not be far-fetched to think that Konza City is not intended for start-up developers.

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