The Estonian tech ecosystem was not built in one day. According to the East European nation’s ambassador-at-large for Africa, Daniel Schaer, Estonia, which achieved independence in 1991 from the Soviet Union, was just like any country across the globe that has freed itself from colonisers.
It was poor but had big ambitions, and based on who you ask, it has managed to achieve them. Part of its development agenda was to modernise its government and the overall public sector.
Despite its small size, Estonia is one of the world’s most technologically advanced nations, thanks to the Estonian Government’s 1990s initiatives to transform it into a digital society, known as “e-Estonia”. Within this movement, 99% of public services, 96% of tax declarations, and 99.6% of banking transactions are made digitally.
Policymakers have taken bold steps to digitise the country, recognising internet access as a fundamental human right and offering “e-residency” for virtual business setups. Estonia also has some of the fastest public Wi-Fi, and digital processes, including virtual signatures, are integral to daily life. Now, fast forward to three decades later, the country has managed to make a name for itself in the tech space and has been exporting its tech and startups to developing economies such as in Kenya and the rest of Africa.
The Kenyan case is particularly interesting because Estonia is popular in the country. One of its biggest startups, Bolt, which offers ride-hailing services in major towns and cities in the country, has been around for a long time and continues to make investments that should, hopefully, be rewarding to locals and partners in the long run.
Bolt has also been complemented by other startups from its turf, including Admiral, Spacedrip, CoNurse App, and Mondo, following the launch of an Estonian-backed tech hub in Nairobi that seeks to spur investments in agritech, IT, cleantech and wastewater management, among other sectors. The hub also looks forward to improving dialogue between Kenyan businesses and business opportunities in Europe.
“These Estonian companies are experts in developing seamless digital public services that have the potential to drive economic growth and improve the standard of living for the population,” Schaer had said during the launch of the hub.
Estonia and digitising Kenya’s ID systems
However, it was during the event that it became clear that Estonia wants to take part in digitising Kenya’s ID system in what is now called Maisha Namba. The programme, which has since been suspended by the courts on data integrity concerns, succeeds the discontinued KES 10 billion Huduma Namba, which had been started by the previous government. Estonia was also one of the partners that had developed systems for Huduma.
The Estonian Centre for International Development Cooperation (ESTDEV) initiated a €300,000 public procurement tender on November 16, 2023. The goal is to assist the Kenyan government in enhancing its IT systems and implementing e-citizen services (including the digital ID), like those in Estonia. The project, led by Andres Ääremaa, head of digital development at ESTDEV, is an international collaboration funded by ESTDEV, the EU, and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), Germany’s main development agency.
“So, we’re in negotiations with the Ministry of ICT to see which areas they would like us to focus on. I mean, it’s just that it is our specialty from Estonia, and what we’re really good at,” Schaer said.
If the negotiations are successful, then Estonia’s companies will also take part in making the e-ID interoperable because it will be used across multiple agencies in Kenya. The interoperability part also means that Estonian tech companies will be working alongside other Kenyan ministries, including that of foreign affairs.
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Estonia in Namibia—and Africa
Estonia’s presence in Africa is known thanks to Bolt, which has a presence in South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, and Uganda, to name a few. There are also plans in the pipeline to bring more Estonian tech startups to Africa, but Kenya and Namibia are two African countries on which Estonia appears to be focusing.
Namibia saw a collaboration between Estonian IT company Cybernetica and the Namibian government, which led to the implementation of the e-government interoperability system called Nam-X.
As said, these partnerships will likely expand, thanks to Estonia’s Africa 2020–2030 strategy, which aims to promote knowledge transfer and assist partner nations in e-governance, entrepreneurship, and education.