By Al Kags
The World Economic Forum in conjunction with the INSEAD institute every year compiles a ranking of countries that measures “the degree of preparedness of a nation of community to participate in and benefit from ICT developments.”
This year’s ranking was published in The African Report, a thoroughly insightful quarterly magazine. Tanzania was ranked 10th, Uganda was ranked 9th and Kenya was not listed among the top ten of that listing. What the ranking was looking at was mainly teledensity (number of telephone – both mobile and fixed – lines per thousand people), internet usage per thousand people. Other key issues included the price baskets of a mobile phone and the internet.
My initial reaction was emotional. I was indignant at the “slight” on Kenya – a country that many of us perceive as clearly more superior to the smaller (size wise) Uganda and the more backward, Tanzania. I was further vexed by the fact that a country like Botswana was to feature in the ranking – considering that they have not much more than the 1.2 million people that their 2001 census revealed. It would be so much easier to attain the 85% of the population covered b y mobile telephone because you are basically talking about 1 million people in a relatively small area.
The mobile teledensity which according to the Communication Commission of Kenya stands at 14.4% – about 144 per one thousand people in 2004 (meaning that if the ranking was based on this point alone, we would have been sixth on the ranking, but who is checking?). According to worldinternetstats.com, the latest information indicates that 4.4% of the Kenyan population – 44 people per every thousand – uses the internet (which would rank Kenya fifth in the rankings if this fact alone was the basis of the ranking that was published).
Then again, once one examines the development of the Information and Communication Technologies ion Kenya, one realises that while the challenge is a major one, we can achieve a higher speed in terms of ICT growth and we are not yet doing it.
4.4% (1.5 million people) of our population being online is hardly enough – especially if a majority of them have to share not many more than the approximately 500,000 computers that Kenya is rumoured to have and especially when they cannot afford to spend quality time because the cost is high and because connectivity is concentrated in the urban and peri-urban areas.
Is it a lack of creativity on the part of Kenyans or a lack of the entrepreneurial spirit that has stifled this fast growth that Kenya is capable of? I submit that that is only true at very high levels. At the fundamental level, there are Kenyans who are demonstrating that they can do a lot more with the internet given the chance.
Tom Ogutu is one such entrepreneur in Malindi on the north coast of Kenya. He is not highly educated and as is the norm in the coast of Kenya, is not the most coherent of English speakers. An average Malindi born and bred man, he did not grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth and for a living, he occupies himself with businesses in the informal sector.
But Tom has understood and in his own small way taken advantage of the one fundamental truth that Africa must embrace – and fast. As President Paul Kagame of Rwanda put it, “in the same way the growth of the 19th and 20th Century was driven by the network of railways and highways, the growth of the 21st Century must be driven by a network of digital highways and value added services.”
In setting up his web site, <a href=”http://www.afrodream.com”>afrodream.com</a>, that sells locally made beaded sandals, beaded key holders, kikois and other artifacts, Tom not only has opened up for himself a significant revenue stream but also, he is supporting a whole community of coastal residents who spend their days making the same items as he orders and sells wholesale the sandals abroad.
He works out of a cyber café, where he spends about Kshs120 an hour for internet usage that is not fast because he cannot afford to have internet in his house, and he services his customers over his two cell phones. What more can he do if costs were down and the connectivity of better quality?
Yet the wireless local loop operators who have been licensed and the other service providers concentrate on Nairobi and relegate the other town to secondary areas – ostensibly because rural folk do not have the money. It turns out that they are very likely wrong – and they may be able to stimulate more business if they moved away from the cesspit of cutthroat competition that is Nairobi.
Alvin Toffler wrote a book called the third wave that suggests that the world is going into a completely new age – one that scholars have called the information revolution. Africa was left behind on two revolutions that shaped the world as we know it today – the agrarian revolution and the industrial revolution. There is absolutely no excuse for Africa to be left behind on the information revolution. Kenya has to be firmly at the front of that crusade.
Hon. Mutahi Kagwe, the Minister for Information and Communication has been reported to have voiced his frustration that while the government has gone a long way in the ICT policy front, the private sector has not moved fast enough to pick up from policy and run with the opportunities. As it emerged at the ICTvillage.com monthly forum last month, industry players did not know what is happening.
The key reason for this is that the private sector in ICT is not speaking within the industry and without – to communicate the progress that the industry is making. One hopes that that will change come Saturday at the ICT industry symposium, where the minister is expected to update the industry on the progress of the ICT strategy and the opportunities therein.
The writer is the convener of ICTvillage.com, an ICT industry business lobby and online portal.