IT Gurus Who Aim to Transform Kenya

Once he gets started, it is hard to make Michael Macharia stop talking about Kenya’s potential to be a world great in the ICT sector.

Standing well over 6ft, Mr Macharia makes a striking figure as he prowls the five floors that house his 11-year-old software company, Seven Seas Technologies, which he considers the blueprint for success for hundreds of investors in the sector.

“Kenya is on the verge of greatness. We have made a name for ourselves globally, now we need to harmonise our efforts. We can shift the economy so that this sector brings in more than a quarter of the country’s revenues,” Mr Macharia said.

Here in the bustling Westlands area where columns of workers are busy tending to the needs of their clients in countries as far away as Australia, this is not a far-fetched dream, it is reality.

Over the next year, Seven Seas hopes to raise its revenues to $75 million, up from the $24 million it achieved in 2010. Like a handful of other firms in the sector with the same untold success story, Seven Seas is anxiously waiting to list on the stock exchange.

“It is still a hard sell to most Kenyans, but we hope that in the next three years the perception that IT is a flighty industry will change,” he said.

A member of a club of leading lights that includes John Waibochi of Virtual City, Liko Agosta at Verviant and Ken Njoroge at Cellulant, Mr Macharia is one of a class of well-dressed 30-something CEOs who hope to catapult Kenya onto the global stage.To do that, however, they will have to compete with a new breed of investors in the field.

Unfettered by many of the challenges older CEOs faced as they tried to set up their businesses, these young guns are side-stepping regulations and global trade barriers to compete with their international peers.

At just 27, Kariuki Gathitu is already recognised as an integral part of Kenya’s mobile money revolution. His work with the systems that run popular money transfer products such as M-Pesa, M-Kesho, Airtel Money and Orange Money has placed the founder of Zege Technologies on the global map.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Soon after graduating from Kenyatta University with a degree in computer science, Mr Gathitu found himself facing a tough job market and daunting prospects for employment.

Alongside a group of like-minded peers, he founded Zege — Kiswahili for “concrete” — Technologies, a firm that hoped to work on just a few “great and exciting projects”.

“Africa has so much to offer in terms of intellectual resources that we have no excuse to be languishing in backwardness. We have already positioned ourselves to be the global software market drivers since we have innovative ways of using technology and mobile phones,” Mr Gathitu said.

The firm quickly found its niche in financial management and integration software.

It has created an application which integrates seamlessly with financial institutions that accept payment via M-Pesa and also disburse funds via M-Pesa.

The targeted users are financial institutions who already use mobile money transfer services, but who require a harmonised approach to their execution of products based on the platform.

Zege’s application was designed for M-Pesa to integrate with any financial management system.

The service targets products like PesaPap, KCB-Connect, or M-Kesho, micro-finance institutions, NGOs and any organisation that wants to ease their M-Pesa collections and disbursements.

The company faces more than a few challenges as it goes up against industry giants, with its biggest being how to maintain ownership over its products.

Mr Gathitu — who dislikes taking sole credit for any work Zege does — had to put off developing his own project to assist Equity Bank realise its goal of creating a mobile savings account that later became known as M-Kesho.

Working as part of the team at Equity Bank, Mr Gathitu was involved in implementing the bank’s mobile banking platform.

Notably, it was his work that led to the development of M-Kesho’s integration technology, which the bank uses to transfer money between bank accounts and M-Pesa.

The latest in a string of Kenya’s rising techpreneurs to be featured in international media, Mr Gathitu is now busy selling his latest invention, M-Payer.

But is it all hype?

The growing crowds at one of the country’s largest and best-known incubation centres, the iHub, belie that doubt.

Like church faithful, a growing group of techpreneurs like Mr Gathitu and Mr Macharia rub shoulders with representatives of international firms like Google and Nokia, all in the name of boosting Kenya’s status as Africa’s most vibrant development hub.

They are all actively seeking ways to create the next M-Pesa or Ushahidi, an online reporting tool developed in Kenya that has helped relief work around the world.

Until recently, the transformation of Kenya into the region’s Silicon Savannah has taken place in small epi-centres like the iHub.Industry analysts say the time is now ripe to consolidate all the activity under one roof.

“If we do not unite, then all these efforts only serve to benefit ourselves, not our country,” Mr Macharia said.