Negotiating East Africa’s Tech Ecosystem

by Owen Sanderson

Kenya’s promising tech ecosystem is on the rise. Sparked by a handful of vocal bloggers—and sustained by cheap Internet, ubiquitous cellphones, and new international investment—Kenya is angling to be the next Seoul or San Francisco. The roots of this tech revolution can arguably be traced to the opening of Nairobi’s iconic iHub in 2010. Based in a non-descript building in bustling Kilimani, the iHub established a home for designers, investors, and wayward mzungus from Silicon Valley looking to make an impact in the developing world. Within months of the iHub’s opening, TIME journalist Alex Perry had coined the term “Silicon Savanna” Others followed Perry’s lead and the rest is history, or more accurately, history in the making.

Today, major tech houses like Google as well as smaller but impressive mom-and-pop shops like Kopo Kopo call Nairobi home. The World BankThe McKinsey Global Institute, and Vodafone have all released reports extolling Kenya’s place among the technology giants. Nairobi appears to be fully embracing its role as East Africa’s darling, serving as a magnet for thought leaders determined to solve thorny development challenges. But there is a vital ingredient missing from this success story—a deep talent pool with not just exciting ideas, but the business acumen to kick-start and sustain disruptive innovations.

Knowledge workers—t-shirt wearing coders with creative viewpoints and limitless potential—fuel today’s global tech ecosystems. America’s cohort of these knowledge workers, the so-called “no collar generation,” is growing, and other countries are attempting to keep up with this transformative workforce trend. However, the African knowledge worker still faces major hurdles when competing against Ivy-educated, Silicon Valley-tested techies from the developed world. Without a background in business, many of Nairobi’s bright-eyed entrepreneurs fail to launch or fall into the “persistent startup” abyss.

Kenya’s technocrats are well aware of this challenge. At last month’s Pivot East startup conference, ideas and technical expertise were free flowing but sharp business skills and solid professional experience remained regrettably absent. It is not for a lack of want. As thirsty as these entrepreneurs are for investor dollars, they are even more interested in acquiring applicable business skills they can put to immediate use. Tech incubators and accelerators like the Savannah Fund and Nailab, both based in the iHub complex, are aiming to close the skills gap, but they can only take on a handful aspirational entrepreneurs per year.

So what else can be done to catalyze change and provide inventive Kenyans with a runway to startup success? Let’s start by teaching basic negotiation skills to entrepreneurs living along (or near) the base of the economic pyramid. This negotiation toolkit can empower these individuals to improve their businesses—and with luck, the lives of those around them. Teaching interest-based negotiation skills in Africa is not a new phenomenon. Consider the success of a negotiation curriculumdelivered by Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) in Zambia. Over the last two years, IPA educated a group of young women in interest-based negotiation. In partnership with researchers from Harvard Business School, Columbia University, and the Zambian Ministry of Education, IPA pioneered the Negotiating a Better Future project (also known as Girls Negotiation). The six-day workshop taught the merits of negotiation to an audience of over 3,000 young women. Emboldened by their new negotiation skills, these girls can now make smart, productive life choices. Consider how a teenage girl trained in a negotiation has the self-awareness and confidence to convince her partner to practice safe sex, persuade her father to pay for her school fees, or influence her grandparents to seek medical attention when ill.

But the merits of negotiation training move well beyond young women in Zambia. In fact, IPA’s approach is applicable to techies in Kenya. A strong negotiator is able to navigate challenging business conversations commonplace in all startup environments. Kenya’s entrepreneurs are primed to use their newfound negotiation skills to lift themselves and their communities out of poverty. Consider how an entrepreneur trained in interest-based negotiation has the ability to better convince a supplier to cut him or her a more equitable deal, persuade a donor agency or equity partner to support a specific component of his or her business, or influence a customer to purchase a particular life-changing product. Equipping entrepreneurs with negotiation toolkits is a smart move and is set to pay dividends. Innovators who are also savvy businessmen and businesswomen hold tremendous potential to propel Kenya’s tech ecosystem from a slick headline in TIME to a key driver of economic change across the continent.

About the Author

Owen Sanderson is a rising second year Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy (MALD) candidate at The Fletcher School focusing on innovative approaches to international development. This summer he is working as a fellow for Ushahidi’s business team based out of the iHub in Nairobi. While in Kenya, Owen is also leading a series of negotiation trainings generously sponsored by Harvard’s Program on Negotiation (PON) and Tufts’ Institute for Global Leadership (IGL).

Combating Wildlife Trafficking with 21st Century Statecraft

The Economic Promise of the East African Railway