Essay by Tony Roberts and Andrea Jimenez Cisneros: “In order to decolonize global innovation thinking and practice, we look instead to indigenous worldviews such as Ubuntu in Southern Africa, Swaraj in South Asia, and Buen Vivir in South America. Together they demonstrate that a radically different kind of innovation is possible.
The fate of Kenya’s Silicon Savannah should serve as a cautionary tale about exporting Western models to the Global South.
The fate of Kenya’s Silicon Savannah should serve as a cautionary tale about exporting Western models to the Global South. The idea of an African Silicon Valley emerged around 2011 amidst the digital technology ecosystem developing in Nairobi. The success of Nairobi’s first innovation hub inspired many imitators and drove ambitious plans by the government to build a new innovation district in the city. The term “Silicon Savannah” captured these aspirations and featured in a series of blog posts, white papers, and consultancy reports. Advocates argued that Nairobi could leapfrog other innovation centers due to lower entry barriers and cost advantages.
These promises caught the attention of many tech entrepreneurs and policymakers—including President Barack Obama, who cohosted the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Kenya. As part of its Silicon Savannah vision, the Kenyan government proposed to build a “smart city” called Konza Technopolis in the south of Nairobi. This government-led initiative—designed with McKinsey consultants—was supposed to help turn Kenya into a “middle-income country providing a high quality life to all its citizens by the year 2030.” The city was proposed to attract investors, create jobs at a mass scale, and use technology to manage the city effectively and efficiently. Its website identified Konza as the place where “Africa’s silicon savannah begins.” Years later, the dream remains unfulfilled. As Kenyan writer Carey Baraka’s has recently detailed, the plan has only reinforced existing inequalities as it caters mainly to international multinationals and the country’s wealthy elite.
One of the most important lessons to be derived from studying such efforts to import foreign technologies and innovation models is that they inevitably come with ideological baggage. Silicon Valley is not just a theoretical model for economic growth: it represents a whole way of life, carrying with it all kinds of implications for how people think about themselves, each other, and their place in the world. Venture capital pitching sessions prize what is most monetizable, what stands to deliver the greatest return on investment, and what offers the earliest exit opportunities. Breznitz is right to criticize this way of thinking, but similar worries arise about his own examples, which say little about environmental sustainability or maintaining the integrity of local communities. Neoliberal modes of private capital accumulation are not value neutral, and we must be sensitive to the way innovation models are situated in uneven structures of power, discourse, and resource distribution…(More)”.