There is only one topic of conversation in Nairobi these days: Tomorrow President Obama will visit Kenya for the first time as president. A visit that is creating tons of excitement as well as plenty of anxiety. Travelers flying into or out of Nairobi over the next few days are advised to be at the airport at least six hours in advance due to to numerous police checks on the main highways, roads are 'beautified' in desperate last-minute attempts, and most offices and factories are just shutting down for the long weekend knowing their employees are unlikely to be able to get to the work anyway. Nairobi traffic is a disaster on a regular workday, it will certainly be a nightmare while Obama is visiting. And while the itinerary for the President's visit remains vague and secretive, he is expected to make an appearance at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit to be held in Nairobi over the weekend. In Nairobi, Obama's entourage of businessmen, venture capitalists, and philanthropists will meet an abundance of young innovators who have turned the Kenyan capital into the startup hub of East Africa, if not of the whole continent.
While my work for the Clinton Health Access Initiative certainly keeps me extremely busy and has been enormously rewarding, I frequently try to make time to meet and network with the young Kenyan and international entrepreneurs, hear their ideas, and gain an understanding of how their experiences trying to build an enterprise in the East African region differs from that of their peers in New York, San Francisco or Berlin. One opportunity to learn about Social Impact startups was the a pitch event hosted by VillageCapital which awarded $50k to startups in the field of agriculture. It was amazing to hear the variety of ideas and approaches the entrepreneurs presented, all trying to develop solutions for farmers and farming communities in a part of Africa where farming contributes ~45% of government revenue. The guys behind Mifugo.Trade presented an online livestock exchange that directly connects livestock producers to buyers cutting out the middlemen; the team behind Atikus talked about how they are trying to expand access to credit by increasing the capacity of MSME lenders via re-imagined insurance and technology risk solutions; and my favorite - though not directly related to agriculture - were the founders of Remit.ug who built an online platform for international money transfer to mobile money thus cutting out the expensive and inconvenient established money transfer providers.
What impressed me most while hearing the pitches and talking to the entrepreneurs was that they are not simply trying to copy American or European startup success stories trying to build an African Uber or Yelp. Instead, they are building business models that disrupt their local communities and are specifically designed to empower individuals that formerly had little power in negotiations with more powerful middlemen or corporations. And while technology is changing the way people do business anywhere, it has carries particular power for the poor and previously disadvantaged in East Afica. Providing technology solutions for these communities and also making money while doing it, just seems like a very rewarding way of doing business.
Obama's visit will give the local startup community its well-deserved time in the limelight. After he leaves and life returns to normal in Nairobi, I will be hopefully be able to get back to the office and have an opportunity to talk more about the work I have been doing over the past two months for CHAI in my next post.