The future will be built in Africa, Facebook FB +0.26% CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in Nigeria, before travelling to Kenya, the “world leader” in mobile money, on his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa, a surprise trip which has propelled Africa’s entrepreneurial spirit into the news.
“It’s inspiring to see how engineers here are using mobile money to build businesses and help their community,” Zuckerberg said after visiting Nairobi’s iHub, the most famous of Africa’s innovation hubs.
He also popped into the office of BRCK, a remarkable internet connectivity device that has since morphed into a clever education system for the developing world. Both have been co-founded by Erik Hersman – who is also the co-founder of Ushahidi, the real-time reporting tool created during the violence following Kenya’s disputed 2008 elections and is considered – along with M-Pesa – as one of Kenya’s greatest tech success stories.
“Just landed in Nairobi! I’m here to meet with entrepreneurs and developers, and to learn about mobile money – where Kenya is the world leader,” Zuckerberg told his 78-million followers on Facebook. Kenya has 5.3-million Facebook users, many of whom access the social network via mobile.
“I’m starting at a place called iHub, where entrepreneurs can build and prototype their ideas. Two of the engineers I met – Fausto [Marcigot] and Mark – designed a system to help people use mobile payments to buy small amounts of cooking gas, which is a lot safer and better for the environment than charcoal or kerosene. It’s inspiring to see how engineers here are using mobile money to build businesses and help their community.” The system is called PayGo Energy.
Hersman told me: “He was very keen about the real-world problems being solved at Gearbox”. An extension of iHub, Gearbox is a maker space with 3D printers and other manufacturing facilities in Nairobi. “Think of it as doing for hardware what iHub did for software in Kenya, which is really concentrating the activity around hardware manufacturing. It is an onramp for manufacturing in Kenya.” Last year there were eight startups working in the Gearbox space, now there are 24.
“He’s interested in cool tech that solves real problems and I think to his credit – which is not him believing his own PR – he really does care about getting the internet to emerging markets and get it out to the edge of the world. Of course they are doing it for commercial reasons, but that’s okay, we need a commercially viable internet everywhere. He does really care about that though, that’s what came across to me.”
Yesterday in Nigeria, where he praised African entrepreneurs, Zuckerberg said: “The thing that is striking is the entrepreneurial energy. I think when you’re trying to build something, what matters the most is who wants it the most. This is where the future is going to be built,” Zuckerberg said.
Asked what he thought of Lagos, Zuckerberg said: “there’s this energy here, you feel it as soon as you get off the place. The world needs to see that. Here is Lagos, and across the continent, things are really shifting. Things are moving from a resource-based economy and its shifting to entrepreneurial, knowledge-based economy. It’s not only shaping the country but the whole continent.”
It echoes similar compliments made by US President Barack Obama, who praised Kenya’s tech entrepreneurs during a trip last July: “This continent needs to be a future hub of global growth, not just African growth”.