Does Kenya's National Broadband Strategy Position it for Second-World Status?

The strategy is a keystone of the nation’s ambitious Vision 2030 program, which “aims to transform Kenya into a newly industrializing, middle-income country providing a high quality of life to all its citizens,” by 2030, by focusing on economic, social and political reforms.

Richard Turere used to hate lions. From the age of 6, his job was to protect his family’s cattle from predators. One morning he awoke to find that his family’s only bull had been gutted by a lion. He began his search for a solution. He tried fire, but the lions weren’t afraid. He made a scarecrow, but the lions were too clever. Then, at age 11, he noticed the lions ran away from his flashlight at night, so he re-created the effect with a solar panel, a car battery, a turn indicator from a motorcycle, a light switch and an old light bulb. It worked.

Turere’s neighbors asked about his invention, and he ended up installing it on seven houses. The idea caught on and is now used all around his nation of Kenya. Two years later, his family hasn’t had any lion problems and he now participates in an awareness and education campaign to help homeowners protect their livestock and families from predators. This is the promise of technology.

And this is why Kenya is building broadband.

In July 2013, Kenya’s Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology along with the Communications Commission of Kenya launched the National Broadband Strategy, one piece of the nation’s ambitious Vision 2030 program. Vision 2030 “aims to transform Kenya into a newly industrializing, middle-income country providing a high quality of life to all its citizens,” by 2030, by focusing on economic, social and political reforms. Broadband is identified as a keystone of the program.

The plan also aims to increase opportunities for women in government employment and decision-making, and to create an independent commission charged with investigating human rights violations. Kenya is considered a relatively stable nation in a troubled continent, and one of the African nations best poised for nationwide broadband deployment, but to be fair, the bar is rather low.

Just as one wonders if a mere 16 years is enough time to bring about meaningful social change, it also casts doubt on whether the nation is ready to give its people the power of the Internet. Some fear broadband could become a tool of the powerful in Kenya, further dividing the classes.

There also are fundamental infrastructure barriers to the success of a broadband rollout. A 2011 World Bank survey found an average of 6.9 power outages in Kenya monthly, and the lack of reliable electricity was cited as a major constraint by more than 25 percent of Kenyan businesses.

Calestous Juma sounds hopeful when it comes to Kenya’s technological future. A Kenyan-born professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Juma co-chairs the African Union’s High-Level Panel on Science, and wrote The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa. Engineering and technology can help Africa turn the agriculture industry into a driver of major economic growth, he said.

In the book, Juma called on policymakers to consider technologies that support farmers’ existing practices, and for ISPs to lower prices. The entire continent could benefit from technology if it can figure out how to apply it to existing industries, he claimed. There also needs to be “closer cooperation between the government, academia, the private sector and civil society,” he said.

In 2013, Juma wrote a guest editorial for CNN in which he envisioned technology transforming Kenya in the coming years. By consolidating gains already made in the mobile industry and receiving proper guidance from high-level leadership, the nation can turn the success it has seen toward new market sectors, he said.

“The key to doing this is building new research universities whose curriculum and teaching are directly influenced by the evolution of the mobile industry,” he wrote, citing some progress, including the establishment of the Multimedia University in 2008, with support from the ministry of telecommunications. More direct links to the telecom industry, however, would help advance mobile technologies.

Juma used the word “revolution” to describe broadband’s potential for Kenya. In fact, a study of Kenya’s broadband efforts by Mark Graham, senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, found that news articles detailing the arrival of fiber-optic connectivity to the region were more than twice as likely to reference a “revolution” than to offer any critical analysis about connectivity strategy and economic growth. There’s something about the idea of new technology in a troubled region that excites people. Such “unbridled optimism” is good and bad, Graham wrote in an email to Government Technology.

“The optimism spurs outsiders to see East Africa as a tech-savvy, well connected part of the world; thus, dispelling earlier imagery that was associated with the place,” he wrote. “However, this can also be harmful as people often have unrealistic expectations about just what is possible and probable.”

The world can read that Kenya has been connected to the global network and think that means the average Kenyan now has broadband access, when in fact those rollouts are still waiting to happen in most places.

At an information and communications technology (ICT) summit in Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi in November 2013, one ISP CEO, Abdirahman Sheikh, called for an open access model wherein firms could share infrastructure and offer better coverage to the whole nation. “I’ve seen streets in Nairobi where there are up to six fiber connections belonging to different players,” he said, adding that this competition is leaving areas deemed unprofitable unserved.

Technology has shown that a small group of determined people or even an individual can use the tools that have been made available to them to do nearly anything. Some, like Graham, say that sort of empowerment isn’t happening on a broad scale in Kenya. “We’re not seeing much evidence that the poorest or most disadvantaged are able to use better connectivity to reduce inequality,” he wrote. “There are examples of better connectivity being put to use for the poor, but by and large, it is those in privileged and powerful positions that are able to extract the most value.”

The western technology empowerment model can be seen to a small degree in the capital. There are five innovation facilities in Nairobi: iHub, Nailab, Fablab, iLab and the Human IPO’s Startup Garage. The largest, the iHub, was launched in 2010. As of March 2011, iHub had 3,000 members, 1,000 of which are software developers. At least 12 companies have also been formed through connections at the iHub.

More prominent, however, is the government’s investment in organizations for business process outsourcing (BPO). Two Kenyan BPOs, Horizon and Verviant, are the type of organizations that fit well into the Vision 2030 plan, according to Graham’s analysis. They are companies that provide businesses in the U.K. with outsourced services like transcription, customer service, Web development, software design or mobile application development.

Through his interviews, Graham found that the image of social instability was a deterrent when Kenyan BPOs tried to attract new clients. Verviant’s CEO, Agosta Liko, explained that the first year of business was difficult. “We told people, ‘I’m in Kenya.’ They tell you, ‘Your product is good, and everything, but let me talk to other providers, then I’ll talk to you.’ They’re worried. You think Kenya is Ethiopia. You think Kenya is Rwanda. You know, people think Africa is a big country. … Look, when you tell someone, ‘I’m taking my software project to a company in Africa,’ there’s something wrong with that sentence. We’re not known for software, yet.”

It’s unclear whether Kenya’s broadband efforts will have enough impact to reach its lofty Vision 2030 goals, Graham said, but it’s good that the government is thinking proactively about global connectivity.

“For somewhere like Kenya, it might be most useful to see technology as a necessary, but not sufficient condition for economic development,” said Graham. “The country, without a doubt, needs fast and affordable broadband access. But broadband alone isn’t going to solve structurally embedded issues like mass unemployment, poverty or income inequality. … Unless there is a conscious effort to tackle inequality, the winners and losers will likely be very predictable.”

It’s hard to imagine equality in a place where some violent criminals get marginal sentences and movies featuring prostitution are banned, yet tens of thousands of children work as prostitutes. But the signs of ingenuity and desire for progress are there.

With funding from the World Wildlife Fund, locals are implanting the horns of live rhinos with microchips as a way to catch poachers. Another organization, Poachers Exposed, created a website to publicly shame poachers who have been caught and convicted. Locals are using the tools they have to solve problems, and if the boy who stopped the lions had had a laptop with an Internet connection growing up, who knows? He could have started the next Facebook.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.