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20 Kenyan web and tech innovations worth watching

Kenya is abuzz right now. The outlook for technology and innovation in Africa has never been brighter, and Kenya is positioning itself strategically in anticipation of a wave of groundbreaking web and mobile emerging market products and services. The resources being put into the Kenyan IT sector currently demonstrate how seriously the country is taking the challenge to become Africa’s Innovation hub.

The Kenyan Government, through its ICT Board,  recently closed the window for proposals for its $4-million grant towards local content and software applications using mobile and/or the web. This was a concerted effort by the government to meet its mandate to make Kenya a Top 10 Global Tech hub. The government made a call to innovators and entrepreneurs to propose both innovative applications and content for the Kenyan Government as well as the private sector. The response was remarkable with over 2 000 proposals sent in.

Fast Facts on Kenya:

Another reason for this wave would be the development of open spaces, hubs and labs fostering innovation in the region. Places like the iHub, Nairobi’s Innovation Hub, are set to play a key role linking technologists, innovators and investors. Similar spaces are also appearing across Africa including Geekspace in South Africa and the newly announced Hive Colab in Uganda as well as the Cameroonian Limbe Labs.

The Nailab, also based in Nairobi, is an incubation space for ICT-based and “ICT-heavy” start-ups, including small and medium-sized businesses. Nokia has also been proactive, putting their efforts behind a Research and Sub-contracting Lab and User Experience Unit at the University of Nairobi.

One innovative product getting world-wide attention is the mobile payment platform M-Pesa. Launched by local mobile service provider, Safaricom, the service stands at more than 9-million registered users. Twenty four billion (approximately $300-million) in monthly transactions, and the figures are growing exponentially. It is fast becoming a staple in transaction payments across Kenya, and is an integral part of many of the East African nation’s start-ups.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the start-ups at the forefront of Kenya’s current revolution:

Maduqa

This startup targets Kenyan business owners, providing them with a simple online store to conduct business and position themselves online through the platform. It also doubles up as a classifieds business listings site available for these and other businesses.

EatOut

The online restaurant guide has quickly filled the niche in the market and secured its place as the go-to guide for people dining out. It offers restaurants a chance to upload profiles, share their information and also gives consumers the chance to share reviews.

Wazua

The finance and investment forum gives users market information and threads where market information is analysed, shared and discussed. The site caters to a wide range of investors and businesspeople, from those in informal investment groups, known commonly as chaamas, to those in the stock market, real estate and the bonds markets.

PesaPal

The payment gateway, aggregating both mobile, bank and web payments, has steadily gained traction. It recently launched their school fees payment program SchoolPay, which allows schools to manage mobile payments. PesaPal CEO, Agosta Liko, is set to share his experiences as one of the speakers at the upcoming Tech4Africa Conference in Johannesburg.

Ufahari

An interesting addition to the list, this startup is the only one on the list yet to formally launch, but still worth watching. It first drew attention by attracting close to 2 000 followers in a few months on Twitter by sharing content in anticipation of their launch. Their Twitter feed indicates that they will provide you with “a regularly updated news website, featuring some of the world’s most intriguing business concepts and people”.

Virn.net

The group of websites on the ViRN Network features a News and Blogs content sharing platforms as well as Wallapa, a video-based tourism and travel site among others. All of which will serve ads through Metro — their Advertising platform. Powered by WebC, an authenticated login, messaging and web analytics system, users get a ‘Passport’ to ViRN’s group of sites.

Essential Africa

The portal aims to claim the position as one of Africa’s “go-to” search engines for African content. It doubles up as a web classifieds directory with comprehensive listings that cover all African countries on one single virtual platform.

Mocality

The web and mobile-based business listings and directory application has registered some remarkable milestones, among them registering approximately 11 000 businesses in Nairobi. Backed by Naspers-owned, MIH Internet Africa, they’re offering business owners in Nairobi a free platform to promote and advertise themselves, equipping them with 400 free SMS’s a month, a contact list and mobile business cards to promote themselves.

Bagalicious

The e-commerce site focusing on the selling and delivery of womens’ handbags, purses, accessories and jewellery has made some strides in the local e-commerce market; its payment platform is powered by PesaPal.

Sembuse

Having earned the title of being “East Africa’s first mobile social networks” Sembuse has developed into an SMS messaging and content-sharing network in a similar vein to Mxit. Sembuse spread predominantly through a downloadable Java application to get to its estimated 6 000 registered users.

Whive – The mobile social network platform has a network that includes Whive.mobi where users share events, ringtones, games and SMS messages between members. It also took Kenya’s ongoing constitutional referendum as an opportunity and gained some publicity for releasing iKatiba, a series of mobile apps with the proposed constitution translated into 8 ethnic languages and popular urban slang Sheng.

KenyaUnlimited – Though not the most active of the start-ups listed, it’s been at the heart of the blogging community by being the first and most populous Kenyan Blog aggregator. There’s still plenty of room to grow into the more established niches that the popular Afrigator aggregator fills for the continent.

AfricanDigitalArt – The online collective and creative space started by curating digital art, animation, interactive work, short films, graphic art, typography and design and has since grown to become a network of new media artists across Africa and beyond. The community gives artists across the continent a place to showcase their work and portfolios as well as a way to share inspiration and connect with emerging artists.

GotIssuez – Through crowdsourcing the consumer experience in Kenya, this platform gives companies the opportunity to respond and resolve complaints while promoting compliments and sharing FAQs. For customers it encourages participation and engagement while rewarding users as they resolve each other’s issues and engage with the site through web, mobile, and social media. (Disclosure: The author is a partner at GotIssuez)

KenyaImagine – Originally founded to address the gap in quality online content from Kenyan news and magazines, it turned into a nucleus for political, economic, scientific and business content. With heavy influence and readership from the diaspora, it has grown into a platform for creative writing and leading independent opinions within those topics. It is currently expanding to cover the arts.

PataUza – In the race to become “Kenya’s Online Marketplace” there are many contenders. Among these, PataUza is one to note thanks to its approach and execution. The online classifieds site focuses on three main categories: jobs, motor vehicles and property.

Mashada – Thanks to its forums and chat-rooms, Mashada has connected Kenyans for over 10 years. Its use has recently shifted to those in the diaspora, and it’s a melting pot for popular culture and discussion. With additional features including a blog and content aggregator featuring a tweet-stream of members and online influencers built in, it continues to be a stalwart in the minds of most Kenyan digital citizens.

Africa Knows – The photoblog’s purpose has been to tell a different story of Africa and rebrand the continent through words and pictures. The majority of its content comes from Nairobi with a universally African perspective, and it’s a growing repository of stock photography and creative imagery from Kenya’s capital.

Rich Media – The web platform offers investment data, insight and perspective on the Kenyan investment platforms including the Nairobi Stock Exchange. It also has video interviews with local CEOs, directors and management professionals including a series of podcasts from MindSpeak, a monthly Business Club meeting that brings leaders in business together to share their views and engage in debate and discussion in Nairobi.

KenyanLyrics – The local portal for lyrics to vernacular and contemporary Kenyan music has skyrocketed up the rankings locally. It has since expanded to offer artistes the chance to position themselves and create biographies, publicise events and share songwriting profiles and insight behind their inspiration.

Ushahidi is probably one of Kenya (and Africa’s) biggest success stories right now. Its open-source approach and global appeal are what make it a world-changer. Developed in the aftermath of the disputed Kenyan election of 2007 where it was used in conjunction with Google Maps to identify hotspots of ethnic tension, it “uses the concept of crowdsourcing for social activism and public accountability”. Ushahidi received global recognition after it was used extensively during rescue operations following the Haitian earthquake.

On the start-up front, it is encouraging to see the steps taken from government down to the private sector. Now, it’s up to the innovators, technologists and entrepreneurs to “start local and think global”.

Author Bio

Mark Kaigwa
Mark Kaigwa is a Creative Director and Marketing Consultant born and based in Nairobi. Mark co-wrote the award-winning Warner Bros. videogame 'Pamoja Mtaani’ (Together in the ‘Hood) their groundbreaking first African videogame project as well as 5 Animated short films for Warner Bros. Animation. Mark developed from a traditional marketing... More