Editor’s Note: This post is Alex Bashian’s reflection on Nairobi’s “calling” after his recent visit to East Africa.
Working from our office in Nairobi, I can’t help the feeling that Kenya is in the midst of a mobile transformation. A bustling city that some consider the Silicon Valley of Africa is a place where entrepreneurs, technologists, and funders of all ilks join the leaders and laggards of the telecom industry. Yet the scene still has a well-balanced mix of collaboration and competition, where savvy local entrepreneurs and technologists work to extend the story of mobile innovation.
Perhaps nothing embodies the innovative spirit in Nairobi more than the mobile money revolution. Although the innovation and technology ecosystem has largely grown organically, it is increasingly supported and stimulated by the nascent import of human capital and sustainable investment capacity. In Nairobi, you’ll find a multitude of serial entrepreneurs from Europe joining boutique venture capitalists and impact investors from the US, and innovators of all kinds from both the local area and the Kenyan Diaspora. Technologists share coveted commercial building space at coworking spaces, and promising incubator graduates compete to join aggressive accelerator programs, all of which contribute to the growth of next generation mobile-technology startups.
For those of us on the ground in search of the next big opportunity for the unbanked, a few key mobile money themes have caught the attention of the technology and investment community. The first, referenced in our recent blog post, describes the potential for interoperable mobile money models in other African countries, such as Nigeria. The second focuses on the opportunities for merging large telecom operators with local retailers, distributors, and technologists who understand local needs and customs for product design and distribution. They’re looking for ways to work together, whether through the release of an API or competition and sponsorship to cultivate the innovation community. The third, perhaps still to be defined, describes the creation of additional mobile-based financial service offerings beyond means-of-payment. This next wave of mobile money might include saving and budgeting as much as it does payments and remittances. Among all this activity and innovation, the next-generation of products and services are works in progress.
As investors and innovators look to collaborate and build upon the most impressive mobile payments services expansion in the world one thing is clear: Nairobi and the rest of Kenya are taking their first place lead in the m-finance revolution very seriously. So much so that even the unlikeliest of faces are beginning to pay attention and cheerlead for increased private equity in the region. On a continent with 6 of the 10 fastest growing economies and the most prized success story of mobile money in the world, an increasing number of emerging market skeptics are captivated by the potential for the next generation of opportunities to accelerate prosperity for the unbanked.