ONE DAY IN 2004, in the Kenyan farming village of Engineer—so named because an Englishman once ran a mechanical repair shop there—a slight and nearsighted boy was walking past the only printing shop when his eyes fell on something he had never seen: a computer.
The boy watched as the owner stabbed at his keyboard. Edging closer, he saw pages spew out of a printer. Standing beside the humming machine, the boy stared mesmerized at the words and numbers that had somehow been transmitted from the computer. Almost a teenager, Peter Kariuki had discovered his destiny.
His parents, subsistence farmers of cabbages and potatoes, began to worry that Peter was spending too much time at the printing shop. No one in Engineer had access to the Internet. Few even had electricity. Tech booms were a faraway notion, and talk of random scrawny, bespectacled kids inventing hardware or writing code and cashing out in their 30s had yet to reach Engineer. Regardless, Peter was hooked. When his superb grades in primary school qualified him to attend the prestigious Maseno School (whose alumni include Barack Obama’s father), a teacher gave Peter the keys to the computer science lab, where he could code all night long.
In 2010 the 18-year-old computer wizard traveled to Kigali, Rwanda. Kariuki got a job designing an automated ticketing system for the capital city’s bus system. Although Kigali was among Africa’s tidiest and most crime-free cities, its transit system was woefully in keeping with the norm on the continent. Because the buses (really just vans) were unreliable, overcrowded, and glacial in velocity, most commuters relied on motorcycle-taxi drivers, who are notoriously reckless. Indeed, throughout sub-Saharan Africa, road accidents are catching up with AIDS and malaria as leading causes of death—and police statistics that Kariuki has seen indicate that in Kigali about 80 percent of road accidents involve motorcycles. These facts riveted Kariuki and his roommate, Barrett Nash, a fellow start-up aspirant from Canada with oversize red-frame glasses. After turning off their laptops for the evening, Kariuki and Nash would stroll through Kigali’s red-light district to an outdoor bar where, over Primus beers, they would wrestle with a basic question: How could they provide Kigali with an Uber-like motorcycle-taxi service that was efficient, affordable, and safe?
Kariuki and Nash described their concept in a video posted on a website used to seek start-up money. An accelerator group founded by an American venture capitalist named Sean O’Sullivan reached them by email and offered them an expenses-paid, three-month mentorship in Cork, Ireland. After determining that it wasn’t a hoax, Kariuki and Nash quit their day jobs. When Kariuki informed his parents, they consoled themselves with the recognition that a 22-year-old had plenty of time to recover from an early failure.
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Kariuki and Nash returned to Kigali in spring 2015 with the finalized software for the concept they had dubbed SafeMotos. Rain clouds were gathering as they climbed on motorcycle taxis. Amid the downpour both vehicles raced heedlessly uphill, just as a truck driver ahead of them threw his gears in reverse. Kariuki flew off his motorcycle. He wound up with a broken kneecap, three missing teeth, and a disfigured lip. Later, when the surgeon who fixed his mouth inquired about his misfortune, Kariuki told him that his motorcycle driver had been in a traffic accident.
The pride of Engineer belongs to a wave of digital entrepreneurs who aim to transform sub-Saharan Africa. Their emergence coincides with the ubiquity of mobile phones throughout the continent, as well as the arrival of high-speed Internet—which, as recently as a decade ago, was rare in most of Africa. During the past few years, tens of millions of dollars in venture capital has flowed from the West into such countries as Kenya, Rwanda, Nigeria, and South Africa. The result is a generation of innovators whose homegrown ideas could, in the manner of SafeMotos, improve the lives of their fellow Africans.
New technology spreading throughout the region allows residents to buy groceries, clothing, and other goods online. An app called iCow helps herders manage their cattle populations. Another, named Kytabu, makes it possible for students and teachers in underprivileged schools to lease textbooks on mobile devices. However unwelcome economic disadvantage may be, in Africa it has sparked ingenuity. As Michel Bézy, the associate director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Kigali campus, observes, “When you and I need something, we go on Amazon. In the village they have to invent it. I see it with my students. They’re much more creative over here.”
Nevertheless Bézy—who has also worked on campuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Belgium, and North Carolina—is among those who fear that Africa cannot possibly meet the expectations raised by Silicon Savannah boosters. “Having an idea is fine,” he says, but “an idea has no value unless it’s executed.” Skeptics point out that some 60 percent of sub-Saharan Africans do not have access to electricity. Even for those who can find a way to power up a computer, there are limited opportunities for learning how to excel with it. Bézy notes that only eight of the thousand highest rated universities are in Africa (one in Egypt and seven in South Africa), according to Webometrics, which ranks colleges by analyzing data available on the Internet. The effects of such deprivations are apparent throughout African society.
“The awareness of what information technology can do is very, very low in Africa,” Bézy says. “The first time young Africans get computers in their hands is high school. In the U.S. it’s at age four. Company executives here have no idea what IT can do for their companies.”
Technology is the future and hopefully the Engineer and his uber-like app will be one of Kenya’s top 5 apps used by consumers. Below are the top 10 apps used in Kenya. https://www.similarweb.com/apps/top/google/store-rank/ke/all/top-free