Richard Bell, CEO of East Africa Capital Partners, which founded the Wananchi
Group, has been involved in East Africa’s technology, media and telecoms (TMT)
industries for over 20 years.
In that time it has started, bought, grown and sold many of the leading brands
in those sectors, in addition to establishing many of the key institutions at the
heart of Africa’s internet and information technology industries.
Bell explains the history behind how the region has become such a vibrant TMT
hub, what he believes the growth engines of future development are likely to
be, and to articulate some of the challenges. Bell looks at the opportunities for
the next generation of TMT entrepreneurs in Africa.
“We are focusing mainly on the internet,’ he says, “as opposed to the mobile
phone industry.’ He goes on to explain that the Wananchi Group have built the
first fixed line residential fibre network in Africa, provided the first multichannel
satellite uplink facility, and are the first multi-channel pay TV content producer on
the continent, outside of South Africa.
“The East Africa region has developed from having no undersea cables to four in
the space of five years, thus reducing dramatically the costs of bandwidth in
Nairobi. Uganda too is following suit. Beyond infrastructure and bandwidth
however is growth of content. The advent of pay TV is resulting in greatly
increased resources that are channelled towards local content.
“We predict there will be five main growth engines of the “silicon savannah’ and
they all relate one way or another to content. These are government services,
education, daily lives, creative – arts and media, and outsourcing and the IT
While these five engines have the potential to power massive growth in what
Bell refers to as the “Silicon Savannah’, he also identifies a number of key
challenges that the industry will need to face to maximise this growth. These
include infrastructure, as bottlenecks still remain; content regulation, with pay TV
operators needing to have equitable access to sporting content; intellectual
property and patents, where there is a need for robust and vibrant copyright
and patent regulations; investment, a complex issue, the solution of which
revolves around how to attract investors in a sector whose assets are generally
defined as “soft’ and shunned by potential funders. The final challenge is digital
migration, which is surrounded by uncertainties.
When discussing opportunities, Bell continually refers to East Africa. “It’s where
our future lies,’ he says. “It’s not a matter of Kenya doing better than Tanzania
or Tanzania stealing a march on Uganda. It’s about the region positioning itself
to take advantage of the underlying advantages that we already have… Given
the right stimulus our silicon savannah can be every bit as rich and vibrant as
our natural savannah,’ he says. “The opportunities are out there waiting for
“The technology, media and telecoms industry sector is going to take off not so
much in traditional outsourcing of call centres and software like India, or
electronic products like China. Our growth will be in the creative economy and in
the use of technology within the economy in our daily lives. In other words our
growth will come from consumption of technology and data as well as