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Terrance Ross Headshot

Nairobi on the Precipice

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A mere mention of the eastern African nation Kenya usually evokes thoughts and images of strong-willed marathon runners defying the odds while navigating the treacherous terrains of their races. But in 2013 and for the foreseeable future the people of Nairobi are also running their own race, this one to development.

If Africa is to be pegged as a continent on the developmental cusp in the next decade, then Kenya encapsulates this progress, and its capital Nairobi is the ultimate harbinger. Nestled between its tumultuous past and its optimistic future, Kenya has arrived at a developmental fork in the road. A wrong turn could revive the demons of the past, while the right path could potentially lead to an economic utopia.

Nariobi has emerged as a place that captures all of the tempestuous volatility of the region. It's a city where shantytowns cower in the presence of sprawling edifices and the tech boom continues to drive its burgeoning economy. But it's this unlikely marriage between cataclysmic adversity and stark opportunity that is driving the nation to exceptional growth.

The tech boom has been largely driven by the success of M-Pesa, the world's most successful mobile banking system. There is a phrase, "pressure makes diamonds," and M-Pesa is a perfect example of this. The sparse location of banks coupled with the lack of Internet access for many Kenyans lead to the development of the mobile payment system.

Developed initially in 2007, it has become a watershed moment for the east African nation. This system, on its own a viable and successful venture, is also representative of how technological advances can in turn have, intended or unintended social effects. It's this ingenuity and spirit of entrepreneurship that is set to drive Kenya in the upcoming years. Yet this optimism may be a tad premature.

In 2013 many facets of Kenyan development should come to a boil. The March elections, the first to be held under a redeveloped constitution, brings with it vast uncertainties. After the debacle that was the 2007 general elections, which lead to mass murders and bloodshed, it will be interesting to gauge the youth's (median age in Kenya is 18.8 percent) response to the upcoming election. Furthermore how will those left behind by the rapidly dynamic Kenyan economy cope with the drastic changes? Resolving longstanding divisions that were deepened by the disputed 2007 election will be a strenuous task for the public who attempt to deal with the wounds of the past while pining the benefits of development.

This delicate balancing act and the increased education of the youth bears some resemblance to the Arab spring. Kenyan leaders, specifically Prime Minister Railia Odinga (by all indications set to take the seat from the incumbent Mwai Kibaki in March) have to deal with a new Kenyan youth, who now harness the power of technology and won't sit by idly if they are oppressed.

Regardless Nariobi remains a stepchild in the developed world clamoring for attention as its tech bonanza leads to development as a de facto Silicon Savannah in the African region. The future may bring about new obstacles but for Nairobi and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa the prospects are bright.