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Digital economy lessons Kenya can learn from Israel

Tuesday January 28 2020

Beer Sheva

Beer Sheva, the Cyber Capital of Israel where 70 technology companies and incubators are located. It is also world's renowned cyber security centre. PHOTO | FAUSTINE NGILA | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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For a long time, Kenya has been referred to as Africa’s Silicon Savannah. This is based on its huge potential in digital innovations that cut across finance, agritech, health, education, communication and transport.

However, we have faced several hurdles in our attempts to match global technology growth standards. But my experience in Tel Aviv, Israel, one of the world’s most innovative capitals, makes me believe that Kenya, despite all the hurdles, can still rise up and have a say in the global digital economy.

Israel ranks second among countries that commit huge budgets to research and development (R&D) in the world. The nation invests 4.3 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).


Inside ‘Silicon Wadi’ – Israel’s high-tech region along the coastal region of Tel Aviv, there is booming growth in Artificial Intelligence (AI) acceleration, a robust agritech ecosystem, fintech innovation, digital transport solutions, cyber security startups and sportstech that improves athletes’ abilities through advanced training systems.


There is a national innovation authority that ensures sanity in the tech ecosystem besides funding all viable innovation projects.


This eliminates the fears of insufficient or lack of seed capital that young innovators have before launching their startups.

Here, corporate tax for technology companies has been slashed to five per cent, and this has spurred growth. Statistics show that at least 80 companies are founded every year.

Everyone has a role to play the shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) in Israel, with startups by minority communities, Christian Arabs, immigrants and women being given equal attention as those from dominant regions and men.

The hashtag WomenInTech# is taken seriously here, and female students undertaking Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) seem to have more confidence, self-belief and awareness of the future, compared to their Kenyan counterparts.

Education in Israel is well structured. Its nine universities are ranked among the world’s best centres for tertiary education that meet current market demands.


Though a pilot government program, children as young as ten are taught modern computer programming. As they progress, they learn encryption, coding and how to prevent cyber-attacks.

As the number of cyber criminals keeps soaring globally, Israel has established a national centre for cyber education to increase the talent pool for military intelligence and prepare children for the expected shocks of the Internet of Things.

In this ecosystem of 380 research and development centres, the rewards have been enormous. 46 per cent of exports come from technology brains, contributing to 9 per cent of overall employment.


This is where you find smart cranes and drones being used in the construction industry to improve accuracy, cut costs and boost efficiency.

But all this started with simple innovation in agriculture – drip irrigation – that gained popularity.

The term Chutzpah (speak your mind no matter what) is commonly used in the nation’s quest for a stronger entrepreneurial culture in technology.

This has encouraged many youths to seek answers to grey parts of projects, or question chief executives about their management styles. It has helped create a holistic environment of integrity, trust and freedom.

The society is mostly informal, speaking Hebrew and dressing casually, but positively thinking together through solving both local and global problems.  


While brain drain cases to Silicon Valley or Shenzhen are normal here, there is a high brain gain, as those who leave return more informed to play a significant role in reinforcing the strength of the Israeli digital economy.

Initially, the country was more disadvantaged than Kenya, but over the past decades, the Israeli spirit, has helped them pull together for a common cause, and now Tel Aviv is regarded as one of the world’s most credible cyber capitals.

It did not allow scarce resources, a limited market and low export volumes to weigh it down. Instead, Silicon Wadi used that as stepping stones to scale innovation heights to an altitude the Holy Land never imagined.

In Silicon Savannah, despite the existential talent, the Kenya National Innovation Agency (Kenia), Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation (Nacosti) and National Research Fund have not provided the expected tech environment expected under their mandate.


Lack of venture capital, low awareness in the future of industries, rigid laws, corruption, an education system that prepares students for inexistent job markets and low budgets in research and development remain the biggest block in the road to sustainable technology businesses in East African’s biggest economy.

Unless the right action is taken, divisions along ethnic, tribal, gender, religious and age lines will keep hurting the growth of innovation and the dream of inclusion will never be realised.

Time to learn from Israel is now!

Mr Ngila is the online editor, 'Taifa Leo'. [email protected] @faustination