After a week of traveling around sub-Saharan Africa, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt saw what he thinks could be the continent's technology leader: Nairobi, Kenya's capital.
"Nairobi has emerged as a serious tech hub and may become the African leader," he said in a post on Google+ yesterday. Rwanda is "a jewel with a terrible past" and Nigeria has an "international image problem."
But Kenya, with relatively stable politics and the British legal system, attracts foreign investment with fewer problems, he wrote.
Like the rest of Africa, Kenya is being transformed by mobile technology. Coffee shops display a code so people can make a purchase using a text message. It's also how people pay their rent. In his post, Schmidt pointed out M-Pesa, a mobile payment service backed by Safaricom, the biggest carrier in Kenya.
Entrepreneurs in Nairobi said Schmidt visited the iHub, a startup co-working space that has taken over a couple of floors of a mall there, to meet a dozen companies.
"His questions were very sharp, as one would expect, on the local market and he was impressed by what some of the local startups like Kopo Kopo, SafariDesk and eLimu were doing," said Erik Hersman, a Kenyan entrepreneur, in an e-mail.
Kopo Kopo is a startup that makes it easier for businesses to accept money via text message. SafariDesk helps plan East African vacations, and eLimu makes a computer tablet for Kenyans in primary school to use.
"Google already has a very strong focus in Kenya," Schmidt said. Mobile connectivity is the biggest thing Africa has going for it, he said. "The Internet in Africa will primarily be a mobile one," he said in his post. "Information is power, and more information means more choices."
Africa's youth can avoid being taken advantage of through corruption or militarism by spreading information and connecting with it, Schmidt said.
One test of his thesis will be Kenya's March elections, which citizens fear will erupt into violence. In 2007, more than a thousand were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced from their homes after the elections.
"If they manage to get through the upcoming March elections without significant conflict, they will grow quickly," Schmidt wrote.