GES 2015: Why the Smart Money is On Kenya

By Maria Contreras-Sweet, SBA Administrator

This week, I will join President Obama in Nairobi, Kenya, for the sixth-annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit. GES 2015 will shine a spotlight on the extraordinary potential of entrepreneurs in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.

Five of the world’s 10-fastest growing economies are African. Innovation hubs have sprung up in Nairobi, Cape Town, and Lagos. A new generation of upstart entrepreneurs has formed tightly knit communities committed to creating African-based solutions to the region’s challenges.

Today, Nairobi is the site of major African headquarters for Google, Microsoft and IBM and has earned itself the nickname “Silicone Savannah” for the innovative ecosystem that has taken root. But the region still faces obstacles. Limited banking options make it difficult for entrepreneurs to access affordable capital. Societal barriers make it difficult for young and female entrepreneurs to access investors.

This week’s summit is an opportunity to bring global investors into the conversation. Venture capitalists from America and other countries will be on hand to hear pitches from local entrepreneurs and offer mentoring, advice and potential investment capital.  The world is knocking on Africa’s door to be part of its extraordinary growth; the GES will help make sure that door is wide open.

President Obama is committed to making the United States a partner in Africa’s growth. This promise includes initiatives like Power Africa, which is working with African governments and private sector leaders to add more than 30,000 megawatts of cleaner electricity to power 60 million homes and businesses. The administration’s Young African Leaders Initiative is helping to develop business skills while cultivating a network for young emerging African leaders.

I am proud to be a leader of President’s Ambassadors for Global Entrepreneurship (PAGE) program. I will be joined in Nairobi by two of those ambassadors, FUBU founder Daymond John and Kiva Board Chair Julie Hanna, who will share personal reflections on building successful global brands.

Each country will bring its own expertise to the table, including our Kenyan hosts. The average Kenyan owns multiple businesses, whether it’s a small shamba garden that sells mangos or a tech startup that provides fiber-optics and software solutions. I look forward to learning from Kenyan business leaders, many of whom participate in informal fundraising networks called chamas to grow community-supported small businesses. At GES, every country’s entrepreneurs can tap into the knowledge of their global counterparts. I plan to bring back useful insights that will help strengthen our entrepreneurial ecosystems here at home.

Kenya has spent years ascending to regional power status in the tech industry. Kenyan innovators helped pioneer mobile payment technology through M-PESA, an online money transfer service now being used by 17 million Kenyans and consumers across the world. Nairobi helped put crowd-sourcing on the map. When unrest engulfed the capital following the nation’s disputed 2007 election, local innovators created one of the planet’s earliest crowdsourcing platforms, Ushahidi, which targets aid to survivors in disaster areas.

This week, the world will be watching as global entrepreneurs and investors gather in Nairobi. What they will discover is a rare energy and entrepreneurial spirt that has made East Africa one of the next major frontiers for innovation and investment. For American investors, opportunities abound, but so does global interest in this region’s economic potential.

This high-tech oasis in the desert is no mirage. In Kenya, the time is now.

SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet is a member of President Obama’s cabinet.