Never EVER is an article on the tech. scene in Kenya complete without the phrase Silicon Savannah. In fact, it is the first thing you write when you open a word document. It is what I did. It is what you should do. Everything else falls into place, slowly, and the phrase will find its place by itself. You need it. I mean, how can you write about Africa without the mention of the Savannah; a savannah with a lion in it, with an elephant, that quintessential acacia, a setting sun. Never mind that the savannah already has its place, and has its owners. You have to create a link between Africa and Silicon Valley. The romanticized and the efficient, and nothing is more familiar to the outer world than the Savannah. And nothing will also be as riveting as a guy in this Savannah writing a line of code that is worth a few millions. And that is the story.
Mention the mobile phone, the cheap ones that are nicely referred to as feature phones. Say how everybody now owns one. Most importantly, emphasize how this simple gadget is the Holy Grail for Africans. How pressing a few keys makes money move from one mobile wallet to another. (I love this term, mobile wallet). Say how peasants are seeing improved sales because of this gadget. Include an anecdote of a Maasai/Samburu moran who sends or receives money while out in the field herding cattle. Accompany it with a photo of the moran, in a full moran pose, but with one hand holding a herding stick, and the other holding up a phone in an attempt to access that ever elusive signal. Remind whoever is reading that Africa is the leader in money transfer, far ahead of Western countries, where mobile money has been a non starter. After all, Africa was once a mobile first continent. But it has since moved on, it is now mobile only .
Write about the hubs. You must mention at least one hub. In fact, if you are visiting, that should be your first port of call after you leave the airport. But you don’t have to visit. This is a piece about technology after all. Just email one of the hubs, get someone to talk to you via Skype. Remember to point out that they(person speaking to you) are extremely beautiful and completely adorable. And mention that’s how you conducted your interview. On Skype! After all, your hardcore political and business reporters have always filed their stories from the penthouse suites of the Hilton in the capital cities. Mention how young eager Africans with affordable (read cheap) laptops are seeking to solve Africa’s perennial problems like malaria and homelessness, don’t forget conflicts. How the hubs with incredible internet are making all this possible. Years later, when you do a follow up, and find nothing in all your enthusiastic Africa Rising initial article never came to pass, look for a guy who went to the hubs expecting everything to work for him simply by showing up and not putting in the hours to give you a disparaging argument of how they are ivory towers. This will give you a new angle to your story, and exorcise the sins of your initial article. Don’t mind that once again, you are missing the story. You just made up one, and that is what writers do. You are just doing your job.
After a while, write a follow up on the products that came of the tech scene, imaginary or real. Emphasize the fact that they are not doing well, five years later. Place the blame on the startups and their products that cannot be scaled. And local wealthy guys who do not see the value of investing in technology because they don’t understand technology. They understand real estate, and the stock markets. Insinuate that the startups founders do not mostly know what they are doing. If you can get a Caucasian male on record saying how the ecosystem is full of fluff, that will be perfect. In fact, make that the opening statement. It doesn’t matter that he is not a local, and that may affect his limited understanding of the ecosystem. He will not be the first foreign (Caucasian?) expert of the African continent. There are so many like him who are always doing analyses about the state of the once dark continent that is now rising.
Furthermore, who said locals understand local issues better? Who can dare make such an ignorant statement? I mean, this is Africa we are talking about.
If you need context, and you cannot reach anybody in Nairobi, or any other African city, just get someone who has been to Africa before, especially a fellow scribe who has undertaken an African assignment before. It doesn’t matter that he went to cover a ZANU-PF conference in Harare, and you are writing about the startup scene in Nairobi. Harare is not that different from Nairobi, is it now?
Once in awhile, come to Nairobi. Attend a tech. conference, or a startup event at a five, or three star, hotel. On the sidelines, especially when having lunch, have conversations with your kindred spirits around the idiosyncrasies of the host city. Remember to mention how you went to Toi market and momentarily froze when one of the shirts on display resembled one you donated to a charity back home. Talk about Mugabe’s fall, specifically about the fact that Africans are making fun of him through memes. Laugh at all the memes, even those in sheng’. Go back home illuminated, refreshed, thinking of the several young Harvard and Yale degrees you came across working on some startup, and mulling over the idea of joining them. When you get back home however, just work on the several article ideas that were inspired during your pilgrimage. It is easier.
After you have written several articles about the tech scene in Nairobi, you can comfortably induct yourself to the ever relevant club of experts of all things African. You will have earned your place.
This piece first ran last year on ihub.co.ke