Brain Gain Or Drain?

Africa’s got software talent… but for how much longer? What do African techies make of Silicon Valley? What might Silicon Valley make of them?

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Steve Mutinda: Kenyan App developer.
Photo Credit: WhiteAfrican

No Prada suits, hoodies or flip flops. No algorithms stolen off dorm room windows. None of that Social Network, San Francisco stuff. Steve Mutinda’s award-winning mobile health app may be designed for the global market, may end up slaying them in Silicon Valley, but, built in Africa by Africans for Africans, MedKenya comes out of a clear African sensibility — that’s its unique selling point.

“We want to showcase the potential of Africa in creating solutions that make a difference,” explains the 29-year-old software developer from Nairobi. “We want the world to see that, yes, it is possible for Africa to be a net producer of solutions rather than a net consumer.”

A one-stop shop for healthcare advice, the app squeezes out revenue from the realities around Mutinda: the technology available to him; Kenya’s most urgent healthcare issues; and, crucially, what’s considered affordable by ordinary Kenyans.

Subscribers to MedKenya pay to receive health alerts. Doctors pay to be included in its directory; the more alerts they write, the better placed their entry.

Designed to meet UN and Kenyan government development criteria, the app is an affordable way of getting expert medical information over to patients rather than an easy knock-off of the latest dotcom fad to hit San Francisco or London.

Top of the Tech

Mutinda is part of a wave of young software developers emerging out of the fast-moving East African tech scene. Find them in the big urban centres, around universities, tech incubators and wherever there’s talk of technology as a way of making serious money.

MedKenya could do well. It came top in the Pivot25 apps competition held in Nairobi last June. Over 100 app developers from across East Africa applied to take part.

Sharp coding skills together with a robust business plan gave Mutinda and his team the edge over the competition. As well as a cheque for $5000, they get to go to Silicon Valley and pitch MedKenya to potential investors at the prestigious DEMO conference this September.

Products launched at DEMO have gone on to become household names — TiVo, Adobe Acrobat and Google’s first attempts at mobile search.

What’s most exciting about going to Silicon Valley isn’t so much the investment possibilities there, says Mutinda’s 28-year-old business partner, Mbugua Njihia. There’s venture capital enough in Nairobi. What sends Njihia “off the scale” is the prospect of the Silicon Valley learning experience.

“It’s like taking an MBA in seven days,” says Njihia. “It’s soaking up the wisdom of people who really understand how to build multimillion dollar businesses.”

Brain Gain?

The African brain gain is nothing new. The key shapers of Kenya’s current tech landscape received their basic training abroad. Coming back, they brought with them the expertise and investment needed to bring about huge improvements to Africa’s telecom sector.

Michael Joseph left South Africa for America and its new mobile phone sector before returning to Africa, to Kenya, to become Safricom’s CEO where, with Vodaphone, he set up the revolutionary mobile-phone based money transfer system M-Pesa.

Mo Ibrahim studied in the UK and then worked for British Telecom before setting up Celtel, the African telecoms giant, and becoming one of Africa’s few billionaires.

Lower down the tech chain, however, the benefits to Africa from the migration of its brightest and best to the West become less apparent. Making connections and knowing how to pitch to potential investors, the tricks of the successful tech entrepreneur’s trade: what’s the best way for African migrants to pass on this kind of insider knowledge?

Out of Africa

In Buea, southern Cameroon, Mambe Nanje Churchill, CEO of the Afrovision Group, says that going abroad has changed many of the developers he knows into New Yorkers or Londoners: they’ve lost touch with their base.

“The fact that Africans leave and invest their skills out there hurts me so much,” says Churchill. “Going out there to study and coming back is a great experience and good for Africa. It’s just that in recent times, the flow seems to me to have been one way: people mostly don’t return.”

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that 20,000 Africans leave the continent each year. Out of the skilled professionals leaving, a high proportion work in IT.

Both Africa’s healthcare and educational systems have been hit hard by migration. At least 60 per cent of doctors trained in Ghana during the 1980s now work abroad, reports the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

Even worse, perhaps, there’s a danger that the best resourced African techies, those who’ve internalised the Silicon Valley vibe, who’ve become members of the global kinetic elite, forget about what’s best for Africa even when they’re in Africa.

“As the saying goes, you might have the greatest idea in the world, but if it doesn’t work ‘on the ground’, it doesn’t work,” says Linda Raftree, Social Media and New Technology Advisor for Plan West Africa, an NGO working with young people.

This is true even if an idea or technology is developed locally. “If those developing it are from the city and they expect it to work in a rural area, but haven’t talked to anyone who would actually use the technology or the application, it can still fail,” warns Raftree.

Homing Instinct

Andrew Mugoya in London views migration more positively: “The majority of Africans born and raised in Africa will always view Africa as home, regardless of whether they return to settle.”

Mugoya left Nairobi after school to go to university in the UK. After working in IT in the blue chip banking sector, he set up Asilia, a creative agency specialising in web development. His team members are based in both the UK and in Kenya.

As well as sending back remittances and making investments, expat African entrepreneurs tend to find ways of sending business back home, he says.

“Africans in the diaspora will tend to look to Africa when trying to get back-office support because they know the region. It’s less of a risky black hole. It’s almost as though they become Africa’s agents, generating business for the people back home.”

A version of this appears in the September issue of Bspirit, the Brussels Airlines magazine.