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Kenya leads Africa in mobile and internet access and is working to finish "the last mile" of connecting the entire country. It has used mobile technology to pioneer mobile money transferring and crowdsourcing crisis information.Technology has the potential to lift Kenya into the developed world, but if investment is not done right, it could widen the gap between the haves and the have nots.The Innovation Trail's Ryan Delaney recently returned from a reporting trip to the East African country through a fellowship with the International Center for Journalists. His reporting takes a look at Kenya's own innovation economy.

In Kenya, waiting for Konza Techno City

The Innovation Trail's Ryan Delaney recently returned from a reporting trip to Kenya. You can find more of his reporting here.

Along the main road between Nairobi, the capital, and Mombasa, on the coast, sits the future home of Kenya's "Silicon Savannah," but right now it’s just a regular savannah. Dry grasslands stretch on for miles, except for a fenced-in plot where a few shacks house guards ready to greet visitors.

It’s here that the Kenyan government wants to build a 5,000 acre shiny high-tech city from the ground up. About 50 miles from the crowded, dirty and congested capital, Konza Techno City will be everything Nairobi isn’t.Kenya leads the African continent for internet access and has pioneered innovations like mobile money transfers. Now it’s setting its sights on this massive development project to place it alongside Dubai and Singapore as a global hub of technology and innovation.

A promotional video from the Konza development authority:

"We'll have more jobs"

Just a few yards from the perimeter of Konza, farmhands Salim and Mwema, both in their 20’s, are cutting grass along a fence line.

"All I know is big companies are coming here and we’ll have more jobs. I don’t know anything about the technology," he said, admitting he's never been on the internet.

Credit Ryan Delaney / WRVO
Farmhand Salim cuts grass along a fence near the proposed site of Konza Techno City.

If the government’s vision is realized, tens of thousands of people will zip around on efficient public transportation and work in shiny skyscrapers on the site.

The price tag for Konza is placed at $10 billion. Kenya will chip in $2 billion of that for infrastructure. The rest of the work is supposed to come from private investment. It’s scheduled to be built in phases and completed in 2030.

Ecosystem of innovation

The development authority behind Konza declined to be interviewed about the project, but the man who helped to dream up the tech city is former information and technology minister Dr. Bitange Ndemo.

He says Konza will create the ideal location for partnerships between private sector, government and academic research.

"Because it’s very key that you create an environment where you can incubate, you can create an environment where there is research groups which can support you," he said in an interview. "While at the same time using that ecosystem to develop capacity for the country."

Konza is worth the lofty investment, he argues, because it will have  a ripple effect.

"Once you develop a park that gives you the ecosystem of innovation, people will begin to see and replicate that," Ndemo said.

"Hoping" for Konza

A mile up the road from Konza is the truck stop town of Malili where there’s only one public computer that connects to the internet over a mobile phone network, when it's working.

A group of young men are passing time playing a game of pool on a table outside. Among them is Daniel Maingi. He and others came to Malili when they heard about the plan to build Konza City.

"The government said it’s going to happen, it’s going to open; it’s not opening yet but we’re hoping for the government to do it," he said.

Maingi went to a school for information technology. He fixes cellphones to earn some cash, but is otherwise unemployed. For now he waits for Konza in hopes of getting one of the predicted new jobs.

"I’m not going to give up," he proclaimed. "Even if it takes how long, I’m going to wait."

The Kenyans I spoke with about Konza City were mostly in favor of the plan. But their support was usually laced with some skepticism. And most of them usually had their own question: Will Konza ever be built?

You can find more from Ryan's trip to East Africa on his Tumblr, Will Trade for Elephants.

WRVO/Central New York reporter for the Innovation Trail
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