Becoming an African Techpreneur: Geopolitics of Investments in “Local” Kenyan Entrepreneurship
Entrepreneurs in Kenya are heterogenous, with diverse backgrounds, career goals, and personal histories. However, during five years of working long hours at the iHub, Nairobi’s co-working space for technology entrepreneurs, we observed the emergence of the trope of the “Kenyan Techpreneur” that came to be latched onto by the state, development aid, and philanthropic sectors and gained its own circulatory power. Through an analysis of the figure of the Kenyan “Techpreneur” and its production in Nairobi, this paper reveals how imperial logics and structures continue to underpin apparently independent initiative, pointing to the limits of thinking in simple binary terms and to a need for inventive, cosmopolitan constructs of Kenyan entrepreneurism. In recent years, Kenyans figured as Techpreneurs have contested the narrow construction of its parameters, which ironically appear to disproportionately benefit non-Africans working in the Kenyan tech sector. Describing some of the quotidian ways that transnational geopolitics and capital continue to heavily shape what happens within the bounds of the nation-state and the “local” Kenyan tech scene, we seek to emphasize how the local is in fact heavily tied up with enduring imperial formations of neoliberal development. This is an important prompt for a global STS to bring new, more complex subjects into relief.
Supplemental data published in this original research article can be accessed in STS Infrastructures at: https://n2t.net/ark:/81416/p4b01b.
Akinyemi, Tayo, and Osarumen Osamuyi. 2021. “Chasing Outliers: Why Context Matters for Early-Stage Investing in Africa.” Kinyungu Ventures.
Alawattage, Chandana, and John De-Clerk Azure. 2021. “Behind the World Bank’s Ringing Declarations of ‘Social Accountability’: Ghana’s Public Financial Management Reform.” Critical Perspectives on Accounting 78: 1–22.
Appel, Hannah. 2018. “Race Makes Markets: Subcontracting in the Transnational Oil Industry.” Items (blog). December 18, 2018.
⸻. 2019. The Licit Life of Capitalism: U.S. Oil in Equatorial Guinea. Durham: Duke University Press.
Avle, Seyram, Julie Hui, Silvia Lindtner, and Tawanna Dillahunt. 2019. “Additional Labors of the Entrepreneurial Self.” Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction 3(218): 1–24.
Avle, Seyram, Cindy Lin, Jean Hardy, and Silvia Lindtner. 2020. “Scaling Techno-Optimistic Visions.” Engaging Science, Technology, and Society 6: 237-254.
Avle, Seyram, and Silvia Lindtner. 2016. “Design(ing) ‘Here’ and ‘There’: Tech Entrepreneurs, Global Markets, and Reflexivity in Design Processes.” In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2233–45.
Bonyo, Linda. 2020. “Why Proposed Start-ups Law is Bad for Entrepreneurship.” Business Daily. October 7, 2020.
Chaux, Marlen de la, and Angela Okune. 2017. “The Challenges of Technology Entrepreneurship in Emerging Markets: A Case Study in Nairobi.” In Digital Kenya: An Entrepreneurial Revolution in the Making, edited by Bitange Ndemo and Tim Weiss, 265–301. London, England: Palgrave Macmillan.
Choy, Timothy K., Lieba Faier, Michael J. Hathaway, Miyako Inoue, et al. 2009. “A New Form of Collaboration in Cultural Anthropology: Matsutake Worlds.” American Ethnologist: Journal of the American Ethnology Society 36(2): 380–403.
Cooper, Frederick, and Randall M. Packard, eds. 1997. International Development and the Social Sciences: Essays on the History and Politics of Knowledge. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1991. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43(6): 1241–99.
Decker, Corrie, and Elisabeth McMahon. 2020. The Idea of Development in Africa: A History. New Approaches to African History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Elyachar, Julia. 2012. “Next Practices: Knowledge, Infrastructure, and Public Goods at the Bottom of the Pyramid.” Public Culture 24(1(66)): 109–29.
Escobar, Arturo. 1995. Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Fanon, Frantz.  1986. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Charles Lam Markmann. London, England: Pluto Press.
⸻.  1963. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. New York, NY: Grove Press.
Ferguson, James. 2006. Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Friederici, Nicolas, Sanna Ojanperä, and Mark Graham. 2017. “The Impact of Connectivity in Africa: Grand Visions and the Mirage of Inclusive Digital Development.” The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries 79(1): 1–20.
Friederici, Nicolas, Michel Wahome, and Mark Graham. 2020. Digital Entrepreneurship in Africa: How a Continent Is Escaping Silicon Valley’s Long Shadow. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, and Citizens for Justice, eds. 2003. We Lived to Tell the Nyayo House Story. Nairobi, Kenya: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.
Gathara, Patrick. 2013. “The Monsters Under The House.” Gathara’s World blog. March 10, 2013. Accessed August 25, 2023.
Geschiere, Peter. 2011. “Autochthony, Citizenship, and Exclusion - Paradoxes in the Politics of Belonging in Africa and Europe.” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 18(1).
Goldberg, David Theo. 1993. Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning. Oxford: Blackwell.
Goldman, Michael. 2006. Imperial Nature: The World Bank and Struggles for Social Justice in the Age of Globalization. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Government of the Republic of Kenya. 2007. “Kenya Vision 2030 (The Popular Version).” Nairobi, Kenya: Government of the Republic of Kenya.
Gray, Mary L., and Siddharth Suri. 2019. Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Harding, Sandra. 1992. “Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What Is ‘Strong Objectivity’?” The Centennial Review 36(3): 437–70.
Hartsock, Nancy M. 1997. “The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism.” In The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory, edited by Linda J. Nicholson, 216–40. First Edition. New York, NY: Routledge.
Iacucci, Anahi Ayala. 2013. “Kenya: One Election, 7 Phone Services, 3 Maps and Some Confusion!” Diary of a Crisis Mapper blog. March 4, 2013. Accessed August 25, 2023.
Irani, Lilly. 2015. “Hackathons and the Making of Entrepreneurial Citizenship.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 40(5): 799–824.
⸻. 2019. Chasing Innovation: Making Entrepreneurial Citizens in Modern India. Princeton Studies in Culture and Technology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Irani, Lilly, and Kavita Philip. 2018. “Negotiating Engines of Difference.” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 4(2): 1–11.
Irani, Lilly, and M. Six Silberman. 2013. “Turkopticon: Interrupting Worker Invisibility in Amazon Mechanical Turk.” In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 611–20. CHI ’13. New York: ACM.
International Telecommunication Union (ITU). 2019. “Statistics.” International Telecommunications Unit: Blog.
Kaplan, Carey, and Ellen Cronan Rose. 1993. “Strange Bedfellows: Feminist Collaboration.” Signs 18(3): 547–61.
Kashorda, Meoli. 2020. “KENET as the National Research and Education Network of Kenya.” Kenet: Kenya Education Network. May 20, 2020. Accessed July 26, 2023.
Kenya Citizenship and Immigration Regulations. 2012. Nairobi, Kenya: Government of the Republic of Kenya.
Kibuacha, Frankline. 2021. “Mobile Penetration and Growth in Kenya.” GeoPoll: Blog. Last modified January 13, 2021. Accessed August 22, 2023.
Kothari, Uma. 2006. “Critiquing ‘Race’ and Racism in Development Discourse and Practice.” Progress in Development Studies 6(1): 1–7.
Madowo, Larry. 2020. “Silicon Valley Has Deep Pockets for African Startups—If You’re Not African.” The Guardian, July 17, 2020. Accessed August 22, 2023.
Matlhare, Sakhile. 2017. “‘Africanness’ as a Professional Trading Chip: Contemporary African Artists as Producers and Secondary Arbiters in the Gatekeeping Process.” Ph.D., United States—Illinois: Northwestern University. Accessed June 25, 2023.
Mavhunga, Clapperton Chakanetsa, ed. 2017. What Do Science, Technology, and Innovation Mean from Africa? Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Mbiti, Isaac, and David N. Weil. 2011. “Mobile Banking: The Impact of M-Pesa in Kenya.” Working Paper No. 17129. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, June 2011, Revised June 2014.
Ministry of Information & Communications. 2006. “Republic of Kenya. National Information & Communications Technology (ICT) Policy.” Nairobi, Kenya, January 2006. Accessed June 25, 2023.
Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology, Kenya. 2019. “National Information, Communications and Technology (ICT) Policy,” November 2019. Accessed June 25, 2023.
Mitchell, Timothy. 2002. Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Mosse, David. 2005. Cultivating Development: An Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice. Anthropology, Culture and Society Series. London: Pluto Press.
⸻, ed. 2011. Adventures in Aidland: The Anthropology of Professionals in International Development. Studies in Public and Applied Anthropology. New York: Berghahn Books.
Mureithi, Muriuki. 2017. “The Internet Journey for Kenya: The Interplay of Disruptive Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Fueling Rapid Growth.” In Digital Kenya: An Entrepreneurial Revolution in the Making, edited by Bitange Ndemo and Tim Weiss, 27–43. Palgrave Studies of Entrepreneurship in Africa. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Musila, Grace A. 2016. “Part-Time Africans, Europolitans and ‘Africa Lite.’” Journal of African Cultural Studies 28(1): 109–13.
Mwololo Waema, Tim. 2005. “A Brief History of the Development of an ICT Policy in Kenya.” In At the Crossroads: ICT Policy Making in East Africa, edited by Florence Ebam Etta and Laurent Elder, 25–43. Nairobi, Kenya and Ottawa: East African Educational Publishers: International Development Research Centre.
Ndemo, Bitange, and Tim Weiss. 2017b. “Making Sense of Africa’s Emerging Digital Transformation and Its Many Futures.” Africa Journal of Management 3(3–4): 328–47.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. 1986. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Nairobi: East African Education Publisher.
Okune, Angela. 2018. iHub Research (2011–2017): A Critical Technology Action Research Group within Nairobi’s Flagship Tech Innovation Hub. STS Infrastructures (Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography), last modified June 26, 2018. Accessed August 21, 2023.
⸻. 2020a. “Open Ethnographic Archiving as Feminist, Decolonizing Practice.” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 6(2): 1–37.
⸻. 2020b. “Moments in Nairobi (Tech) Landscape.” Research Data Share, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified June 9, 2021. Accessed August 21, 2023.
Otieno, Dickson. 2020. “ICT Authority Announces Winners of the Presidential Digital Talent Programme Innovation Award.” Techish Kenya: Blog. August 12, 2020.
Park, Emma, and Kevin P. Donovan. 2016. “Between the Nation and the State.” Limn, Issue 7. August 9, 2016.
Perrigo, Billy. 2022. “Inside Facebook’s African Sweatshop.” TIME, February 14, 2022. Last modified February 17, 2022. Accessed August 22, 2023.
Philip, Kavita. 2004. Civilizing Natures: Race, Resources, and Modernity in Colonial South India. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Pierre, Jemima. 2020. “The Racial Vernaculars of Development: A View from West Africa.” American Anthropologist 122(1): 86–98.
Poulos, Christopher N. 2021. Essentials of Autoethnography. Essentials of Qualitative Methods. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Rajak, Dinah. 2011. In Good Company: An Anatomy of Corporate Social Responsibility. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Republic of Kenya. 2004. “E-Government Strategy: The Strategic Framework, Administrative Structure, Training Requirements and Standardization Framework.” Text/HTML. Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis.
Roberts, Sarah T. 2019. Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Rodney, Walter. 1972. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. East African Publishers.
Rosaldo, Renato.  1993. Culture & Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis: With a New Introduction. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Sakaja, Johnson A. 2020. Kenya Gazette Supplement: The Startup Bill. Supplement 163, Senate Bill 16, August 7, 2020.
Scott, David. 2004. Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
SHoP Architects. n.d. “Konza Techno City Plans.” Accessed April 7, 2021.
Society for Social Studies of Science (4S). 2018. Annual Meeting. Sydney.
Stoler, Ann Laura, Carole McGranahan, and Peter C. Perdue, eds. 2007. Imperial Formations. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press.
Strachan Matranga, Heather, Bidisha Bhattacharyya, and Ross Baird. 2017. “Breaking the Pattern: Getting Digital Financial Services Entrepreneurs to Scale in India and East Africa.” Washington, DC: Village Capital.
Village Capital. 2020. “Strachan Matranga, H., Bhattacharyya, B., & Baird, R. 2017. Breaking the Pattern: Getting Digital Financial Services Entrepreneurs to Scale in India and East Africa. Village Capital.” Research Data Share, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified October 16, 2020. Accessed August 21, 2023.
Weeks, Kathi. 2011. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
World Bank. 2018. “Kenya: World Bank Approves $50 Million to Boost Kenya’s Small and Medium Enterprises.” Press Release No. 2018/146/AFR. June 15, 2018. Accessed August 22, 2023.
Zachary, G. Pascal. 2008. “Inside Nairobi, the Next Palo Alto?” The New York Times, World Business, July 20, 2008.
Copyright (c) 2023 Angela Okune, Leo Mutuku
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Authors of all content published in ESTS retain the copyright to their work, and agree to license them under one of the following Creative Commons licenses CC BY-NC-SA 4.0, CC BY 4.0, CC BY-SA 4.0, and refer to the individual article footer for specific licensing data. Please read our open access policy for more information.