National Geographic : 2017 Dec
116 national geographic • DeceMBer 2017 sector—and only the government can forge that link,” says Ndemo, who was among the first champions of a 5,000-acre technology hub un- der construction in Konza, about 40 miles from Nairobi, the capital. It was billed as Africa’s first “smart city” at its groundbreaking in 2013, but its construction has been hamstrung by political squabbling and profiteering. As Ndemo under- statedly puts it, “The speed is not there.” For now Kenya’s version of Silicon Valley is Nairobi’s Kilimani neighborhood, in particular a heavily trafficked, ramshackle thoroughfare known as Ngong Road. One catalyst was the influ- ential technology-innovation center iHub, from which a number of homegrown software start- ups have been hatched—among them Totohealth, which helps parents track the health of their babies from pregnancy through early childhood. The University of Nairobi’s Kenya Science Campus is situated on Ngong. Across the street is 88mph, a prominent firm that invests in tech start-ups. And not far from iHub’s location is FarmDrive’s office, quietly positioned in the epicenter of the city’s programming community. Another factor binds Bosire and Kimani to entrepreneurs throughout the city and indeed the continent: In succeeding, they inevitably encounter cultural obligations that can inhibit further success. The mythic start-up stories of Steve Jobs building the first Apples in his par- ents’ garage and of Bill Gates dropping out of Harvard to start Microsoft might be celebrated in the West, but the stakes for brazen risktakers are different in developing countries. “ This is the reality of entrepreneurship in Africa,” Bézy says. “ You’re the only educated person in a com- munity of 200 relatives. You’re expected to feed that entire family. And in that way your great idea is constrained.” Bézy’s observation was on my mind as I accompanied Bosire one afternoon on a drive south from Nairobi so that she could learn how a few farming communities were making use of the loans supplied to them via FarmDrive. Their reports were varied. One farmer had used a $200 loan to expand her well-tended acreage of cab- bages and was now ready to apply for a second loan. Another woman who raised pigs had con- structed a sturdy water tank for her animals. Some farmers had fared less well. One had en- countered family hardships and was struggling to pay back his loan. Another had misused the bank’s money on a quick-fix irrigation ditch that had collapsed with the first hard rain. For FarmDrive’s purposes the failures were as useful as the successes. Together they would present a more complete database that would help banks determine lines of credit. Ultimately every farm- ing community in Kenya could benefit from Bosire’s research—including Kebuse, the village where she was raised. But that wasn’t yet obvi- ous back home, as Bosire acknowledged to me when I asked her about the communal pressures on African entrepreneurs. Sighing, the 25-year- old woman said, “My mom and I are having a big fight right now. She doesn’t get it. ‘ Why aren’t you sending more money back home? Why don’t you have jobs to give to your cousins?’” Perhaps Bosire’s mother will see things in a more appreciative light once FarmDrive comes to her village. “ We Africans sometimes resist change,” admits Patrick Wakaba Kariuki, the father of the SafeMotos co-inventor. He had been fretful when his son decided not to attend college in Nairobi to become an entrepreneur. But last year he flew to Rwanda to visit his son. The farm- er marveled at Kigali’s clean streets. It was evi- dent to him that a young man could do business there. And when he climbed onto the back of one of the motorcycles in his son’s fleet, strapped on a helmet, and took off, he found himself glid- ing through more than time and space. He was departing the simple, predictable ways of the village for an uncharted savanna. “I was able to understand,” recalls the farmer, who returned to Engineer—where one day, thanks to dreamers aglow at night by computer screens, the future would also come. j Robert Draper, based in Washington, D.C., is a con- tributing writer for National Geographic. Ciril Jazbec, a freelance photographer who lives in Naklo, Slovenia, spent two years documenting the tech scene in East Africa. This is his second feature for the magazine. ASPIRING TO PROTECT THE ENVIRONMENT through innovative technology, Jessica Chege is studying computers in college near Nairobi. She first became interested in computers when she was 10 years old.