In the last few years, there has been a huge effort to place Kenya as the leader of innovation in the region. This stemmed from how the vision 2030 was drafted, with technology considered as one of the cornerstones necessary to taking Kenya to a middle-income economy by the year 2030. Twelves years to the deadline, many have started asking whether we will meet the target. When it comes to Vision 2030, there are many pillars some of which we are not competent enough to comment on, but it is time to critically look at our ICT policies and what others within the space are doing.
First, it is my feeling that we need to redefine or amend the top-level ICT policy as designed within the Vision 2030. This is informed from where we are in the present which is so far different from the time the document was made. Vision 2030 was launched in June 2008 but I guess it took a while before it was ready to be launched in 2008, and the work on the document was mostly done during the first term of President Kibaki, between 2003 and 2007.
Those who are old enough to remember, BPO was a big thing back then and it formed the main point on our ICT design and policies from then. It was well spelled out on how economic impact of ICTs will be driven by the Business Process Outsourcing(BPO) sector. BPO is the process of hiring another individual or company, either domestically or internationally, to handle business activities for you. From it, the idea of Konza City which by the way we considered a white elephant project from the beginning, was born. Hot on the heel of Konza City was the idea of pasha centres which is now being pushed by the ICT Ministry as innovation centres at the constituency level. Konza was/is meant to be the world-class space with facilities that attract BPOs and other ICT firms.
Creating Pasha/Innovation centres at the constituency level is great but I think the project should be driven by the private sector with active support from the Government. Well, that is a very long story for another day. Back to PBO, the period before the financial crash of 2008, companies in Western world were thriving and had excessive jobs that they could not handle on their own. Back then, they needed help with simple tech work like data entry, transcriptions, telemarketing and others. Then the Financial Crisis of 2008 happened. The crisis led to the failure of key businesses, declines in consumer wealth estimated in trillions of US dollars, and a downturn in economic activity leading to the Great Recession of 2008–2012. With prolonged high unemployment rate, taking jobs abroad by companies whether through BPOs or setting up manufacturing plants became a hot political topic both in US and in Europe. At the end,the BPO sector in Kenya suffered and there is no prospect that it will gain its former glory.
Our overall ICT policy is based on either attracting the international firms to set up in Kenya or doing light simple work through BPO. And we got it wrong in both cases. Majority of international companies setting up in Kenya mostly open sales centres and very little technological transfer going on for Kenyans who they eventually employ. For example, before the fall of Nokia, they had a research firm in Kenya and one would have thought that our people working there, were involved in some high tech research and design, only to learn then that Kenyans working there were the data entry fellows with questionnaires. And they are not alone, up to now, majority of our engineers employed by the multinationals work as sales people.
The above brings me to something interesting that I learned about Microsoft the other day. Microsoft in partnership with Strathmore Business and Delberg opened Policy Innovation Centre. The main of the centre is bringing together the talents of academia, industry and policy experts and the government officials to address the emerging policy challenges in different sectors in Kenya and other African countries.
At the same time, they have created what they call the Digital Transformation Series. According to a statement from Microsoft, the series has been created with the purpose of engaging leaders, policy makers, technologists and entrepreneurs through a series of conversations that will aid in deciphering misconceptions and questions that exist around technology policy. The series will run over the course of 2018 – curating conversations that aim to understand where policy is able to play a role in supporting and accelerating digital innovations that drive inclusive growth for the continent. A variety of topics will be covered – all of which are seen to drive economic and social growth (FSI, healthcare, government and oil and gas).
Amr Kamel, General Manager, West, East, Central Africa & Indian Ocean Islands, Microsoft, captured why I found this interesting as follows:
“The Digital Transformation Series puts into action what we set out to do which is to provide a platform and an environment for policy nurturing, discussion and creation. The notion of the center creating a frontier for Financial inclusion & faster economic growth really looks set to become a reality through this.”
I think this is a golden opportunity for Kenya. As country, we really need to address the shortcomings in our technology policy regarding several sectors. For example, one of the reasons why most Kenyans are not starting the hardware manufacturing startups or projects in general is because of the high cost of energy needed to do so. The Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) were quoted by the star back in February saying that the local industries are paying higher power tariffs compared to neighbouring countries, making locally produced goods uncompetitive.
According to KAM, Kenyan manufactures are paying an electricity tariff of $ 0.15 (Ksh15 ) per kilowatt hour, compared to Ethiopia where sector players are paying as low as $0.04 (Ksh4.14 ) per kilowatt hour. Electric tariffs in Egypt and Uganda are $0.06 (Ksh6) and $0.12 (Sh12) per kilowatt hour. Tanzania $0.14 (Sh14 ) while South Africa manufacturers are paying $0.09 (Sh9) per kilowatt hour.
Still on the energy, oil and gas is one area that technology if well deployed could transform the country to a major oil producer. We can learn how US companies became major Shale oil producers through fracking. Shale oil is crude oil that lies between layers of shale rock. Oil companies produce shale oil by fracturing the layers of rock that contain the layers of oil… and hence the name fracking. Technology played a big role in making it possible. Still on the same, Microsoft guys told me of one case study from Australia where they helped Fortescue Metals Group to establish itself as one of the world’s largest iron ore producers.