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Harnessing IT Innovation For Job Creation In Kenya

In mid-June, The Rockefeller Foundation convened a roundtable discussion in Nairobi, Kenya to discuss the opportunities for job creation for the country’s high potential but disadvantaged youth through information communication technology (ICT) enabled work.

This roundtable was the fourth in a series of roundtables that we are convening in each of our six target countries to help identify innovative ways to tackle youth unemployment as part of the Foundation’s recently launched Digital Jobs Africa initiative.

The roundtable brought together key players in Kenya’s ICT and youth development sectors including technology companies, local and international outsourcing companies, government representatives, members of the tech innovation community and not-for-profits involved in skills building and training for youth.

This wasn’t the first time that industry players discussed the opportunities for job creation in the country’s business process outsourcing (BPO) sector which is still nascent, supporting an estimated 7,000 seats, but has an expected growth of 40 percent. There seems to be a new momentum in Kenya to finally capitalize on the country’s comparative advantages. The country is already home to a number of mission-driven BPOs such as Digital Divide Data, Samasource, and Daproim Africa who are providing jobs and skills development for disadvantaged but high potential Kenyan youth.

“Kenya has a track-record of yielding ground-breaking innovations.”

While BPO in Kenya remains a promising avenue, one emerging area of opportunity that was discussed at length might have the ability to create thousands of digital jobs across a range of sectors. The country’s thriving tech innovation community could be harnessed to identify and develop IT innovations that lead to job creation for Kenya’s youth. Kenya has a track-record of yielding ground-breaking innovations such as MPesa, a mobile money transfer service which provides income generation for over 50,000 people, and Ushahidi a nonprofit technology company that specializes in developing open source software for information collection and interactive mapping. The country also has a well-developed ecosystem that supports innovation. Universities, like the University of Nairobi are already fostering and teaching innovation through their Fab Lab, which is a part of a network of 100 workshops supported by MIT to encourage digital fabrication. Local innovations hubs such as MlabiHub, and Nai Lab are also supporting IT innovation. Global players are also taking note: in 2012, IBM established a research lab in Kenya-its first such lab in Africa.

Participants identified the important role that hubs played in incubating and supporting emerging technology enterprises that can create jobs for youth. They also identified challenge funds as a tool to spur innovation focused on job creation. Finally, one of the more exciting recommendations coming out of this conversation is the importance of connecting this community to other sectors—potentially through sector specific umbrella organizations—so that their innovations are informed by the job creation needs and opportunities of those sectors. While Kenya’s has been noted as the tech hub of Africa, dubbed in some circles as the ‘Silicon Savannah’, using technology to employ the country’s youth would be the real game changer.

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