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Kenya's 'Silicon Sahara' to host inaugural DEMO Africa conference

The first-ever DEMO Africa conference will be held this week in Nairobi, Kenya, bringing a stage with Silicon Valley origins to a city that's quickly becoming its own continent's innovation hub.

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Thomas Debass, director of the Office of Global Partnerships at the U.S. State Department, says the motivation for DEMO Africa stems from a public/private alliance called LIONS@frica that aims to help African countries grow their economies organically. While DEMO Africa will last just two days, from today to Friday, the objective is for the 40 companies presenting at the event to walk away with long-term partnerships.

"The initiative is not DEMO," Debass says. "The initiative is about how you enhance Africa's budding innovation and startup ecosystem, and how you bring resources and tools and know-how to make sure that Africa organically can develop its own ecosystem on the ground."

The DEMO conference is held bi-annually in Santa Clara, Calif., and earlier this month wrapped up its 22nd year. Being in Santa Clara, the event is strategically located in the heart of Silicon Valley, and has branched out into other burgeoning innovation hubs like China, Singapore, and Brazil. Location is an important decision for conferences that carry the DEMO brand, but Debass says recent developments in Nairobi made it an easy one.

"There are 54 countries in Africa. You could have done it anywhere," he says. "But we chose Kenya because it had the ecosystem."

Nairobi over the past decade has earned the nickname "Silicon Sahara" for its entrepreneurial prowess and growing culture of innovation, the development which was cultivated by the country's government. Paul Kukubo, CEO of the Kenya ICT Board, says the Kenyan government funds and incentivizes entrepreneurship in the country to encourage Kenyans to create jobs organically, rather than rely on those offered by foreign corporations, such as Google, Cisco and EMC, that could outsource or leave the country at a whim.

"The way the government saw it is, if you provide a platform that supported entrepreneurship, you create jobs," Kukubo says. "That's how they see it. They're very clear about that."

The result has been a budding environment of technologically minded entrepreneurs empowered to create solutions to problems they've encountered in the continent. By connecting Nairobi to the international network afforded through the DEMO conference, entrepreneurs from around the continent can expand their impact reach globally, Debass says.

"At the end of the day, we don't just want Africans to come up with solutions to their own problems," he says. "They're part of the world community. They can be coming up with a solution to a problem that you have."

Encouraging innovation across the continent means that more residents of developing African countries will be able to create solutions to more problems. This naturally creates more room in the market for new companies to emerge. Debass compared the mobile market of African countries to that of the U.S., where a saturated market means that users are presented with dozens of apps to solve each problem they search, be it in Google's Play Store or Apple's App Store. Most African countries are still far from that point, Debass says.

"Imagine [an app store] in Africa, where there is still tremendous amount of growth opportunities and pain points, where there is an opportunity for someone to see a problem," Debass says. "There are a lot of problems in the continent, and it's the problems that create opportunities."

One example is M-PESA - the "m" stands for mobile, and "pesa" is the Swahili word for money - an SMS message-based means of exchanging money through cellphones. The system requires only text messaging capabilities and enables users to exchange money between each other or to pay bills from their phones. Kukubo says it has become a savior to many people in Kenya who hadn't had bank accounts simply because of limited access to banks.

The Kenyan Treasury relied on M-PESA to help cut roughly $300 million in costs, a move that helped put an end to a recent strike by publicly paid teachers across the country, according to a report from Human IPO. In Afghanistan, a system based on M-PESA technology is credited with reducing police corruption by improving payment processes for police officers, whose pay was being siphoned by criminals capitalizing on a largely unbanked post-war economy.

However useful it's been in those cases, M-PESA has had difficulty establishing a user base in other countries, according to the BBC. Efforts to spread usage in countries like Tanzania, South Africa, and India have fallen flat, in part because providers have had trouble finding a way to convince consumers to adopt it, the BBC report claims. The same approach in one market does not necessarily work in others.

Therein lies the value of DEMO in a market like Nairobi. By publicizing these technological solutions to African problems, the DEMO conference will attract the eyes and contributions of those around the world. Through DEMO Africa, people dealing with problems like those in Afghanistan could find a solution like M-PESA.

"The key thing that we realized is that you need to do this type of event that connects them to the global grid," he says. "When Africa becomes part of that grid, it's not just them doing this pitching in front of the audience in front of them. They're pitching to the world."

Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies, privacy and enterprise mobility for Network World. Follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/ntwrkwrldneagle and keep up with the Microsoft, Cisco and Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is [email protected]

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