Adam Nelson speaks with Superuser about how his company is bringing cutting-edge cloud infrastructure, based on OpenStack, to Kenya and surrounding East African countries.


Adam Nelson is the founder of Kili, a public cloud based in Kenya and designed to bring inexpensive compute and storage services to developers and tech startups in East Africa. Nelson started Kili to address the massive gap in cloud infrastructure in most of the country and to help African tech start ups compete with faster, more secure, and less expensive cloud services.

We caught up with Adam this week to learn more about Kili and what it’s bringing to Kenya and beyond.

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You’ve been referred to as the "AWS of Kenya"? Why is that the case?

I want people to know that we have top quality cloud infrastructure right here in Kenya. It’s available as a service to anybody who wants it and so for people that are already using cloud technology, or are thinking about it, they can deploy locally in order to get much better latency and take advantage of a consistent regulatory environment for their Kenyan data. We also have Ugandan customers using the product too, so it’s not just Kenya.

What kinds of projects and workloads need IaaS like Kili in the region? What did they have to do before Kili?

Most startups still use companies like Digital Ocean and AWS in Europe or the US. That’s how it was before Kili. Now, people are seeing that for the same price as AWS they can get better service locally — and they like it. The tougher battle is with local non-cloud operations where it’s a bunch of servers in a private data center. The executives at those businesses understand that the cloud (public or private) is the way to go, but it’s going to take a while to get the IT departments on board.

Could you tell us about your OpenStack environment in terms of projects used, size, third party of open source plugins, or any other unique factors?

One thing that sets us apart is that we accept MPesa for cloud services. Mpesa is a ubiquitous mobile money platform in Kenya and virtually all Kenyan developers can pay with MPesa, whereas only a few have internationally recognized credit cards. You can’t use AWS or any other clouds without a credit card, so we help those developers out. We’re confident that in a few years, some of those startups will be very large and they won’t want to switch cloud infrastructure at that point – so we’re building up that client base now.

How does OpenStack help you deliver value to your customers?

OpenStack means that we can tell our customers that the integrations they do with us will be portable to other clouds. Most companies seek vendor lock-in so their customers don’t leave, but we believe that if the service is good they won’t want to leave. The best customers will see the vendor lock-in ahead of time and won’t commit — and we don’t want to miss out on the best customers.

Being in Kenya and knowing that many groups have global operations is also important to understand. We know that many of these groups have already worked with Rackspace, HP Cloud, etc… so telling them that it’s the same software and APIs gives them comfort. OpenStack also allows us to integrate with other projects trying to federate many clouds — we’re working on some exciting collaborations on that front right now so be sure to check in with us in a few months.

How do you see your environment evolving over the next year?

Now that we have traction, we’re looking to scale the product to all of Africa. There are tremendous growth opportunities not just here but in other countries like Nigeria and South Africa. With a pan-African presence, we can really give startups and enterprises scale that’s simply not possible in Africa today.

Who are some of your customers? What industries/kinds of businesses do they operate?

We’re mostly focused on tech-savvy startups right now because they can move fast and we just moved out of the free-trial beta period in June. One of my favorites is Maramoja, a taxi app focused on the unique problems of matching taxis to riders in Nairobi. We’re also helping out NGOs that do everything from microfinance to hate speech–monitoring on Twitter.

Finally, what is the OpenStack user community like in the region?

The user community is small but we’re starting to get support from IBM and other players moving into the region. There are also professors at local universities who participate and are hoping to spin up private clouds for teaching their students.

Brittany Solano
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