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Kenya at the heart of African innovation

Thursday July 23 2015

Equity Group Holdings Limited CEO James Mwangi speaks during the launch of Equitel, a mobile and banking services platform by Equity Bank in the Kenyan market, on July 20, 2015. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Equity Group Holdings Limited CEO James Mwangi speaks during the launch of Equitel, a mobile and banking services platform by Equity Bank in the Kenyan market, on July 20, 2015. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

FRED MATIANG'I
By FRED MATIANG'I
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This week marks a first for Kenya: Equity Bank launched its ultra-thin SIM card, Equitel, a direct interface between a customer’s bank account and the mobile phone.

Safaricom set up Jiji Smart, an initiative that will see the launch of smart and Internet-ready addresses in Kenya. And one of the world’s most powerful people will visit Nairobi for the first time as a head of State to discuss entrepreneurship in Africa.

Kenya is used to world firsts. Innovation is a long-standing phenomenon. That is why financial inclusion expert Carol Realini proclaimed that “the future of banking is being defined here”.

That is why strategic management consultants McKinsey have characterised the government’s approach as that of “bold, rapid management innovation”. And that is the reason it was chosen as the stage for the sixth Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES), to be addressed by US President Barack Obama.

Cutting-edge innovation is not only the preserve of private-sector progress but it is a hallmark of President Kenyatta’s Jubilee administration. In healthcare, a countrywide modernisation programme is seeing state-of-the-art equipment being installed in 98 hospitals. It will decentralise specialised healthcare services from national referral hospitals to the counties.

Innovation has changed how citizens interact with the government through Huduma Centres, the one-stop, under-one-roof shop for services such as ID cards, birth certificates and passports. It has been a success, employing thousands in 23 centres, serving 20,000 customers daily and generating some Sh6 billion in revenue.

Part of my role as Cabinet secretary is improving the Kenyan public’s access to information. Our open-data portal crystallises key data around the latest census, national and regional expenditure, and information on key public services.

It was the first such portal in sub-Saharan Africa and the second on the continent after Morocco.

Safaricom has transformed the lives of millions of Kenyans through M-Pesa and it is not the only innovation story from Kenya. M-Kopa, set up by American expatriate Jesse Moore, has powered up more than 200,000 homes across East Africa through pay-as-you-go solar power.

You can be anyone in Kenyan and innovate, as exemplified by the story of Richard Turere, who created a system of lights that would turn on and off in sequence, harnessing solar panels, a car battery, and a motorcycle indicator box to create the impression of movement to chase away lions from a nearby game park that preyed on his family’s livestock. 

Richard’s and many other game-changing innovations will be discussed by hundreds of business leaders, entrepreneurs, mentors and high-level government officials who will converge in Nairobi this weekend to try to find innovative solutions to the problems and challenges that Africa faces.

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, once said: “One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.” This is what we must do.

We have to “invent” the future, but we have the support of some of the world’s brightest minds because they see our potential.

The GES will act as a magnet for discussion around Brand Kenya. Any discerning investor knows that Kenya is a good bet.

The author is the Cabinet secretary for ICT.

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