"The Belt and Road Less Traveled:" An Exploration of Up-and-Coming Businesses in Nairobi

"The Belt and Road Less Traveled:" An Exploration of Up-and-Coming Businesses in Nairobi


       Three Tsinghua—SAIS fellows—Chris Byrd, Danny Kaplan, and Taylor Loeb—visited Nairobi in early January 2019 to meet with company founders and think tanks representatives in the Kenyan capital . 
The group visited the following companies and organizations:
       • Pace Headphones 
       • Moringa Coding School
       • Kilimall
       • Sino-African Center for Excellence representative Wu Tong
       • BitPesa
       • African Economic Research Consortium 
       • Foton
       • Muthoni Wanyoike (Machine Learning Expert)
       Our team would like to thank all of our gracious hosts. We learned an incredible amount about the economic and political environment in Kenya and the broader East African region. 
       We have written separate reports detailing each of our visits. Here, I will offer a brief overview of the trip and highlight key challenges and opportunities. All of these issues and bright spots can be found, further elaborated on, in individual company writeups. 
       Before continuing, it bears reaffirming that Nairobi is the capital of Kenya. Kenya is in East Africa, a developing region. East Africa is one of the most infrastructurally deficient and undeveloped areas in the world. As such, it is natural that a list highlighting challenges and opportunities would be heavy on the latter. It seems to me that the challenges highlighted below often appear to outweigh the opportunities. Further, all of the founders and experts we met with had spent time working abroad and/or were foreign themselves. As such, the Kenyan context, like any other, is often viewed through a relative lens. 
       Political cycle
       Cross-border capital flows
       Local economy 
       First mover advantage
       Cheap Labor
       Establish digital currency network
       Relatively strong education system (in Kenya)
       Market need
       In Nairobi we were able to talk to people having real impact across different sectors. We did not get a euphemistic, official narrative. Rather, we really learned what it is like to operate here—where the problems are and how the potential path toward solutions will unfold.
       We look forward to keeping tabs on these companies—and this country—as they grow.

       Without further ado, let's get into our visits...


Visit 1: PACE Headphones

    Out first meeting in Nairobi was with PACE Headphones, a unique half-Kenyan, half-Chinese undertaking started by popular Kenyan singer turned video producer JBlessing and former Chinese aerospace engineer Larry Liu (刘鹏).

    Both founders had a lot to say about expectations, opportunities, and the advantages of doing business in Kenya, but as we would hear at length throughout our trip, one of the biggest struggles they faced was with talent acquisition and retention. Across Nairobi people in managerial roles complained that domestic talent often had to be trained and invested in, but that once they had been trained properly, had such an advantage on the job marketplace that retention became difficult. 

     However, PACE also saw huge opportunities in partnering with local musicians and cultural figures for promotional purposes, but also as traditional employees. Such employees had a vested interest in helping to produce a high-quality music-centric product. Owing to this mix of artists and engineers, PACE Headphones are designed, marketed, and sold in Kenya. Yet, the ability to produce the headphones in country is still far off. Manufacturing takes place in China. However, both founders were clear about their intention to ultimately have all stages of the value chain located in Kenya. 

    The company's roots reflect the coming together of entrepreneurs from unusual backgrounds. After working for a Chinese aerospace company that launched CubeStat micro satellites, Larry became frustrated by institutional stagnation and the sluggish nature of large companies. For the next few years he worked in East Africa on a variety of projects in industries as diverse as logistics and agriculture, before joining Kilimall, the e-commerce company that our team later visited. At Kilimall, he saw how a nimble startup could thrive in the tech sector in Kenya. The desire to produce real objects for real people fit perfectly with JBlessing's mission to make a homegrown brand that Kenyans could be proud of. They would also achieve something they both saw as critical to sustainable growth: keeping revenue inside the country. 

     JBlessing's life has been dramatically different from Larry’s - orphaned at a tender age, he was taken in by a pastor, and that experience helped him finish his education, achieve success as a musician, and ultimately become Kenya’s premier music video producer. 

     Both saw an opportunity to leverage branding and quality to make a product uniquely positioned to navigate cultural norms in China and Kenya. According to JBlessing, the partnership itself was unusual, as most Kenyan entrepreneurs preferred to go it alone. Both founders agreed that their divergent backgrounds was one of PACE’s biggest strengths. 
      The founders’ idea to establish PACE as more than a functional product—as a brand and a locally created fashion statement—created a market niche at the intersection of Kenya’s aspiring middle class and people who were sick of shoddy and fake products. Rapid celebrity adoption validated their intuition.
    Overall, Larry and JBlessing were extremely hopeful about the future. Despite the challenges in the market, both were extremely proud of PACE and what the company had accomplished in such a short period, and were also confident that other sectors of the Kenyan economy held similar, as yet unexplored, opportunities.

     As an aside---throughout the rest of our trip, we encountered JBlessing's videos everywhere we went. 


Visit 2: Moringa School

   A common theme throughout several of our meetings was how the digital economy is penetrating the East African environment. In developed countries, coding education and technical skills training has provided a fast track for young people or those without conventional educational backgrounds to enter high demand fields like software engineering and web design. We spoke with Boluwaji Oyewumi, Director of Business Development and Growth at Moringa School, about their efforts to bring the coding school model into Kenya. 
      Boluwaji, or Bolu, began by giving a brief overview of Moringa’s history and business model. Moringa views itself as a “digital accelerator” and wants to help equip its students with a wide range of technical skills. Moringa School’s initial curriculum and content model was largely informed by a partnership with HackReactor - a leading Silicon Valley coding school. The average Moringa student is between 18-25 years old, and, while predominantly male, from a variety of academic and social backgrounds. Bolu noted that many of Moringa’s students are either concurrently studying at local universities, or have dropped out to focus on coding as a profession. Bolu attributed the popularity of this path to the slow-changing curriculum at local universities - in a fast-changing industry like software development, traditional academic institutions need to constantly update and modernize their programs to avoid becoming out of date. Similar institutional inertia has frequently been cited as one reason for the success of coding schools in the West. In a notable departure from the Western environment, Bolu notes that Kenyan private sector education has often outstripped the publicly funded universities, which have to navigate complicated and inefficient bureaucracies to secure support for curriculum updates. Moringa has also successfully imported HackReactor’s focus on job-seeking and interviewing skills, requiring students to complete mock coding interviews using whiteboards, with their instructors and fellow students acting as mock interviewers. 
    One difference between Moringa and Western coding schools is that Moringa doesn’t seek to make a profit off of its educational programming alone. Students are charged some tuition - Moringa has so far been unable to offer the deferred payment plans used by some Western coding schools - but roughly 20% of students at Moringa receive some form of external sponsorship. Moringa itself derives significant funding from aid organizations like DFID and the World Bank, as well as from private sector impact investors like Savannah Fund, where Moringa founder Audrey Cheng got her start. Moringa has put substantial effort into evaluating its own effectiveness, keeping detailed records on the employment records of program alumni and working to build partnerships with organizations that have hired Moringa students in the past. A significant portion of Moringa’s best students stay on as instructors, while others leave for the private sector, especially small-and-medium enterprises, or NGOs. Many students who remain in Kenya are interested in applying their tech skills to the tourism industry - which makes a significant contribution to the local economy. 
     Encouraged by the success of its Nairobi location, Moringa is looking to expand its operations to other countries on the African continent. Complicated decision making is required for any business to expand outside of its original country, and Moringa is no exception. Bolu identified cultural features, such as the level of English proficiency, strength of the public education system, and political stability, as key factors when assessing potential country expansions. Beyond that, Bolu highlighted several specific policy domains as relevant to Moringa’s expansion strategy - notably including barriers to foreign investment, such as currency controls, and proximity to more developed markets in Europe and the Middle East. Lastly, Bolu noted that Moringa’s plans for expansion did not indicate a lack of confidence in the Kenyan market. While many challenges remain, Bolu suggested that Kenya retains some unique advantages, including a high level of English proficiency, fast adoption of new technologies, and commercial and cultural acceptance of Western influences.


Visit 3: Kilimall

     Kilimall is Kenya’s largest e-commerce website. In the 5 years since its inception, it has expanded into Nigeria and Uganda, with plans for further expansion in Egypt and South Africa. When we visited, Kilimall was still celebrating its Black Friday sale, which had doubled the previous year’s sales figures. 

     Exploring Kilimall’s shipping facilities we saw yet another great example of how access to China’s consumer product production could transform a business in Kenya. Consumer goods of all kinds—from cellphones to sheets—lined the shelves of Kilimall’s warehouse. All products were centrally coordinated by custom deployed software. Deliveries were ordered by neighborhood in preparation for the arrival of delivery bikes that would fan out from the warehouse Nairobi’s southwest suburbs to homes across the city. 
    Nairobi alone represents 50% of Kilimall’s market, primarily because the capital is home to the greatest purchasing power. On average customers spent 20 USD per purchase—quite high in a country where the average monthly wage is 76 USD. Many other parts of the country have access to Kilimall, but lack of smartphones/internet access often constrain Kilimall’s wider expansion. Better infrastructure mayhelp reduce shipping times, but Kilimall relies heavily on bike couriers who can easily traverse rough terrain.
    Kilimall has, in part, sidestepped this issue of digital access by creating vast networks of agents and delivery centers. These agents are partners rather than full time Kilimall employees and serve as places for customers to place and collect orders. Because of this system, Kilimall has collection points in at least one town in each of Kenya’s 47 counties.
    Kilimall sells some products directly and some via extensively vetted 3rdparty partners. This positions Kilimall somewhere closer to Amazon than Taobao. But, in reality, Kilimall is something entirely novel. 
   Kilimall may have been started as a Chinese company, but Kenyans do hold management positions. Despite echoing similar complaints about talent acquisition as PACE, Moringa, and BitPesa,, Kilimall  appeared to be having an easier time—perhaps due to its slightly larger size.
    But Kilimall also faces challenges. Their competition, Jumia, which has capital investment from Germany, has copied many of Kilimall’s innovations and adaptions. Furthermore, expansion, especially outside of Kenya, is difficult because of capital flow limitations (an issue mentioned on at least half of our visits). Two of the biggest issues cited were developing relationships with governments to allow for favorable tax accommodation and facilitation of capital flow between countries

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Visit 4: Sino-African Centre for Excellence (Tong Wu)
        Our meeting at the Sino-African Centre of Excellence focused on the unique dynamics that affect Chinese businesses entering into the East African environment. SACE representative Wu Tong began by introducing the vision behind SACE and some of the key challenges for the organization. SACE was originally conceived as a complement to academic and government exchange between China and Kenya, focusing on the commercial ecosystem—mostly state-owned enterprises and construction companies with close ties to Chinese banks. Tong highlighted some of the unique features of the Kenyan business ecosystem including an illegible financial sector, import tariffs and duties, cultural differences that can affect employee morale and branding, and periods of volatility in the national political climate. Many Chinese businesses are internationally inexperienced, and unprepared to make the organizational changes necessary for success in East Africa. SACE has attempted to position itself as a go-between that can help Chinese businesses adapt to the African environment - smoothing over predictable points of conflict and promoting mutually beneficial interactions between both parties. However, Tong noted that many Chinese businesses are inexperienced in international business, and skeptical of consulting and similar services that primarily add value by refining management practices and leveraging experience in the local environment. This has contributed to some funding challenges for SACE, and at the time of our meeting Tong herself had just begun to transition to her own private sector consulting business, staying on with SACE as an advisor rather than a full-time employee. Since our visit, SACE itself has reorganized in partnership with Botho Emerging Markets Group - possibly in an attempt to mitigate some of the funding challenges highlighted during our talk.
       Moving beyond SACE itself, Tong guided us through some of the broader features of the Sino-African business and policy environment. Chinese investment in Kenya is generally focused in a few key clusters, including infrastructure and alternative energy. Wind and solar power were major targets for investment. The energy sector in Kenya is currently underdeveloped and struggles to support the power capacity required for heavy industry - creating a persistent bottleneck for future efforts at industrialization. The technology sector also featured some high-profile engagements, including a major pivot by Safaricom, provider of the ubiquitous MPesa mobile payment platform, from IBM to Huawei as the chief provider for backend payment processing services. Compared to other East African countries, Tong was optimistic about Kenya, in part because of obstacles surrounding currency controls and financial services in neighboring countries like Ethiopia. She highlighted infrastructure as the biggest unresolved issue that was holding back African businesses, and expressed cautious optimism that Chinese companies would be able to assist Kenya in this regard.
       Our discussion of infrastructure naturally progressed to the broader geopolitical discussion about Chinese infrastructure investment in foreign countries. When asked about possibly strategic or political motivations for Chinese investment, Tong expressed skepticism, arguing instead that the primary motivation is economic. Chinese companies are looking to expand to new markets, reducing their exposure to a potential slowdown in the Chinese economy, particularly in sectors like construction that have seen large state investment in recent years. When pressed about the risk of Kenyan default on loans to support infrastructure, Tong cautioned that default was clearly seen as a negative scenario by both sides, and that the ultimate responsibility for meeting the financial demands of the loans lay with the Kenyan signatories to the deal. Kenyan policy experts in our later meetings at AERC and elsewhere expressed similar sentiments regarding these investments. Tong concluded by noting some challenges for the Chinese community in Nairobi, particularly with regards to language. However, overall Tong was optimistic about the role of Chinese parties in Kenya - highlighting efficiency and focus as key Chinese contributions to the overall business environment.


Visit 5: BitPesa
        Founded in 2013 by Elizabeth Rossiello, BitPesa is a relatively new company. 
       BitPesa’s goal is to facilitate cross-border transactions throughout Africa. A large part of their business has been converting Kenya’s ubiquitous mobile payment platform, M-Pesa, into Bitcoin. 
       Meeting with BitPesa helped our team clarify one of the most frequently cited issues throughout our meetings: currency flows and forex transactions. Africa is comprised of 54 countries with different governments, different currencies, and different business practices. As a result, it can be extremely difficult to move money both between African countries and outside of the continent. There are huge issues surrounding the movement of funds and repatriation of earnings. 
       We sat down with Stephany Zoo, BitPesa’s head of marketing and cryptosales. She shared her wealth of knowledge on topics ranging from African geopolitics, economics, currency, and, of course, BitPesa.
       Currently only around 1/3 of BitPesa’s transactions occur in Bitcoin. The rest consist of relatively standard forex settlements that other organizations cannot or are not willing to take on. They move $40 million per month in primarily B2B settlements. 
       BitPesa does not currently offer RMB services, but is keen to include RMB in its portfolio in the future and is in talks to integrate with Alipay. 

       At this point, BitPesa’s service fee costs between 0.5% and 3%, depending on the liquidity and “exoticism” of the currency being traded. 
       BitPesa is currently serving a need that we heard echoed at almost every company we visited: execution of cross-border currency flows. 
       Going forward, it appears that BitPesa may ultimately have to compete with the traditional players in the forex industry: large multinational banks. At present, the Africa market is not attractive enough for them, but, as African currency transfer becomes more viable it is reasonable to believe that the competitive landscape will become much more intense. BitPesa has already had issues with Kenyan telecom giant Safaricom, suing the M-Pesa creator for intimidating one of BitPesa’s partners into cutting ties with BitPesa. Safaricom commands an astounding 97% monopoly on mobile payments in Kenya. BitPesa lost the case, but gained a fair amount of press in the process. 
Like many of the other companies we visited in Nairobi, BitPesa is experiencing both the pros and cons of being a first mover in Africa. 
       Our conversation with Stephany Zoo again moved to the HR challenges unique to companies operating in Africa. Much of BitPesa’s technical activity is carried out in their international offices in Luxembourg, Madrid, and London. They also operate in Senegal and Lagos. It is not yet possible to have fully-staffed tech operations in Nairobi. 
       The founder and CEO of BitPesa is American and many of the key management is foreign. Stephany noted that the company was determined to hire a “black African female” C-Level executive by 2020. 
       We had heard previously that, in addition to Kenyans who attend college abroad and do not return, the ones that do often work for large, established companies like Safaricom as opposed to startups like BitPesa. 
Hiring was mostly done by word of mouth and the process often took up to half a year to complete. Hiring was a key sticking point for BitPesa, as for almost all of the companies we visited. 
       Other thoughts:
       Stephany has been working with Africa for many years and has developed a strong macro understanding of the way business and politics on the continent work. We asked her where she thought the best African opportunities were. 
       She mentioned Ghana—with its strong civil society and deep culture of education—as a country currently awash in optimism.
       Rwanda, as well, despite being relatively small (pop 12 million) is another country that has been moving in a consistently positive direction. 
       In many ways, BitPesa embodied the litany of challenges and opportunities that we saw over and over again in Nairobi. It was the literal manifestation of the cross-border payments issue. It operates within a system that is inherently messy and unstable, a system that often stifles the regular people and entrepreneurs in the middle. BitPesa is doing what startups do all over the world—generating solutions to these problems.


Visit 6: AERC

    At the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC), we spoke at length with AERC Executive Director and former Governor of the Central Bank of Kenya, Njuguna Ndung'u. Professor Ndung'u offered an informative and wide-ranging public sector perspective.

   Founded in 1988, AERC is part think tank, part training institute. It has three main duties: research, primarily focusing on thematic research and Pan-African economics for policy generation; training programs, which provide capacity building training for graduate students and MA and collaborative PhD programs throughout Anglophone Africa; and finally, research dissemination, including policy workshops and seminars. 

   Professor Ndung’u detailed a key issue that our hosts from Kilimall, PACE, and Foton also mentioned: lack of physical infrastructure. Professor Ndung'u praised the newly opened, Chinese built, Standard Gauge Railway which dramatically cut travel time between Mombasa and Nairobi. Long term investment, however, is still lacking. Financial instruments, like infrastructure bonds, aren’t been pursued. Governments are generally more focused on fixing the myriad existing issues with transportation infrastructure rather than planning projects that could break the cycle of overuse and repair.
    This topic had a special place in Professor Ndung'u's heart because of his family’s history in the manufacturing industry. He relayed horror stories about companies having to airlift products from Nairobi to Asia via Mombasa.

   Some of these obstacles can be innovated around. Professor Ndung'u was optimistic about improvements in logistics—recently some of his agriculture PhD students had come up with great ways to solve inefficiencies in the market. 

   Solving logistical problems is vital to a market with limited available capital. Banks want sustainable products. They expect fixed assets, which are lacking in Kenya. Without flexible credit it is nearly impossible to get new businesses off the ground. 

   Professor Ndung’u discussed his fear that cheap loans from abroad (especially from China) often failed to account for the lower efficiency levels in Africa. These loans are often destined to fail. However, Professor Ndung'u was adamant that it was the fault of African nationsfor not reading the fine print in these agreements, and that debt management is an extremely important component of governance. 

    This issue is exactly what AERC was designed to fix, and Professor Ndung'u was optimistic about the future. Professor Ndung’u stated the two biggest threats to Kenya as commodity price swings and political cycles that often feature competing strongmen. When combined, these two threats can be exceedingly precarious. However, because of institutions like AERC, monetary policy in Kenya is being handled increasingly responsibly. More and more well-trained economists are emerging each year.  Hopefully, this will ensure stable monetary policy throughout the foreseeable future.


Visit 7: Foton (福田)
      The Foton sales office is located way out in the suburbs of Nairobi. It is a quiet office with all manner of Foton vehicles—from the flagship trucks and buses, to the top-line pickups and dump trucks—displayed out front. 
       We were graciously welcomed by our host, Stephen Li at Foton. Stephen explained Foton’s business in Kenya and broader Africa and outlined the challenges and opportunities (a theme on our trip) of doing business from Nairobi. 
       Foton Motors Kenya Limited was started in 2012. 
     Foton runs an assembly factory in Mombasa, which is its major node of operations in East Africa. Vehicle components are developed, engineered, and sourced from China and shipped to the port in Mombasa. Soon after, they are assembled into a finished product and transported to sales floors like the one in Nairobi. There are 10 countries in Africa where Foton has operations.
       This process—in Kenya assembly—allows companies to avoid both a 25% tariff on foreign made vehicles and a 20% excise duty. Most of Foton’s vehicles are assembled, though not made in, Africa. Foton is beginning to sources and manufacture some products in Africa. For example, Stephen showed us a dump truck model that was entirely African made. However, the transition to manufacturing and sourcing entirely from the continent will be a long and intermittent one. This again, was a reality we found at many of the companies we visited and across multiple junctions of the value chain: a great deal of processes need to be outsourced because Kenya—and Africa as a whole—simply does not have the capacity. This often means that the poorest continent must rely on imported products and know-how for much of what it consumes. 
       The key takeaway from our meeting with Stephen and Foton was the ideaof challenges and opportunities. 
       A few key challenges:
       a. Forex. 
              This was an issue we encountered at nearly every company we visited. Foton is a Chinese company with a base in Nairobi and operations throughout East Africa. Its headquarters is in an RMB zone. It’s Kenya office in a Shilling zone. Then there are operations in Tanzania, Uganda etc. Each country has its own currency and 3/4 of cross-border transactions in Africa are carried out in US dollars. Exchange rates and inflation across any of the zones in which Foton operates can and do have legitimate implications for the bottom line. 
       b. Political cycles 
              Another key issue, especially in the Kenyan context. Policies tend to shift drastically depending on which party controls the Kenyan Presidency. This is particularly pronounced for a foreign company—and, arguably, even more so for a Chinese company—as attitudes toward international relations and China in particular carry heavy political significance. Stephen noted that the current president—Uhuru Kenyatta is relatively accommodative in regard to China policy, but that could change with the next election.
       Further, elections often lead to social upheaval across the continent. This, of course, is bad for business. 
        c. Hiring Local
       In Foton’s Nairobi office there are 20 workers—15 Chinese and 5 Kenyan. Stephen, like most of the other companies we visited, said that he would like to hire more Kenyans. But, it’s not that easy. There is a huge lack of skilled technical labor across all sectors in the Kenyan economy. Many of the best talents attend university abroad and do not return to work. Much like the problems facing manufacturing processes and infrastructure buildout, the higher education system will take time to catch up to this new demand. 
       a. Competition 
       There aren’t many auto companies who see a realistic path to profit in Africa. In fact, the vast majority—upwards of 90% according to Stephen—of cars on the road in Kenya are secondhand from other markets. While the comparative unavailability of disposable income in Kenya means that turning a profit is difficult, it has also kept the majority of companies out of the market. For large companies with cash to burn, there is a prime opportunity to get in on the ground floor. As Foton’s business is primarily industrial vehicles and large passenger coaches, it is better positioned. There is a more straightforward market for those vehicles, which, after all, are revenue generating assets as opposed to passenger cars. 
       The African market is new and complex. Those companies that engage with it early will build up years of operational insights before other players enter.
       b. Talent
       Foton was one of two Chinese companies that we talked to on our trip. It was the only one with a headquarters in China and an internationally recognized brand. Foton faces a lot of the same issues that many of the other companies we talk to face in Kenya. However, it is both aided and, potentially, affected by its status as a large Chinese company. It has cash, established supply chains, and the ability to import quality talent from China. 
      However, Foton is also susceptible to getting caught in the uncertain political relationship between China and Africa. A huge portion of its business model relies on the ability to import from China but assemble in Mombasa. This is made possible by government policy. And, as we discovered through our host(s), government policy in Kenya is nothing if not uncertain.


Visit 8: Muthoni Wanyoike (InstaDeep/Deep Learning Indaba/Nairobi WiMLDS)
     Our final meeting of the trip focused on emerging technology within the Kenyan environment. We met with Muthoni Wanyoike, a machine learning expert who wears multiple hats in the East African artificial intelligence space. Muthoni is the leader of the Nairobi office for InstaDeep, an AI startup headquartered in Tunis, a key organizer of DeepLearning Indaba 2019, the largest annual AI conference on the African continent, and a leading organizer of the Nairobi Women in Data Science and Machine Learning community. 
     We began our conversation by focusing on InstaDeep, and the unique challenges working with cutting edge technology in a developing country. Founded by a Google Machine Learning Developer Expert who wanted to bring the benefits of AI technology to emerging markets, InstaDeep provides a mixture of research, solutions products, and consulting work to its clients in Kenya. Muthoni walked us through a previous project to give us a better feel for the kind of work the company was doing. A large multinational petroleum company was conducting mineral assays to detect new opportunities for fuel extraction. A key indicator that a given region might contain oil deposits is the presence of microfossils, which are detected by analyzing patterns of occlusion in the underlying sediment. This analysis is monotonous and time-consuming, and requires highly trained experts in geology and paleontology. InstaDeep developed a machine learning model that could assist the company’s scientists with the analysis, yielding a significant reduction in cost. 
     Muthoni remarked that many people, both foreigners and Kenyans, are surprised that such advanced analytical tools could be created by Kenyan developers. Echoing our previous meetings, Muthoni acknowledged that the Kenyan tech sector faced some unique obstacles compared to more developed countries, but expressed optimism about the local community’s potential. Muthoni noted some of the common obstacles referenced by our other attendees, including access to capital and political instability, but also noted additional bottlenecks such as access to government data. In some cases, these challenges can interact and compound. Muthoni reported that the staff at the ministry of science under the previous Kenyan administration had been much more friendly to open data initiatives, and interested in encouraging local businesses to apply data to social problems. Since the shift to the new government, much of the progress made by the previous administration has been reversed.
     Despite these obstacles, there are some encouraging signs for the AI industry in Kenya. Research from InstaDeep recently received its first acceptance to NeurIPS, widely considered the world’s most prestigious machine learning conference. Muthoni continued by talking a bit about her experience attending the 2018 Deep Learning Indaba, Africa’s largest international machine learning conference, and her experience assisting with this year’s event. Boasting sponsorships from many of the world’s largest and most advanced AI companies, including DeepMInd, Google, and IBM, the 2019 Indaba aims to attract more than 700 machine learning experts from across the African continent. The quality of the speakers at the previous Indaba was on part with the leading conferences worldwide, featuring top AI scientists like DeepMind’s David Silver and Google’s Jeff Dean. Muthoni concluded our meeting by speaking about her role in organizing Nairobi Women in Machine Learning and Data Science - a volunteer community organizing effort aimed at empowering women to learn tech skills. The group meets regularly and serves women of all ages and experience levels. Recently, two women who participated in previous WiMLS sessions as students had returned to lead a short course as instructors. Muthoni’s unique experience as an expert in cutting edge technology and as an organizer in her local community gave her a unique perspective, which complemented many of our previous meetings. 

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