How Kenya Pioneered the ICT Revolution in Africa

How Kenya Pioneered the ICT Revolution in Africa

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Kenya, a struggling economy, has for some time now been the undisputed leader of mobile money technology, writes Bitange Ndemo, co-author of Digital Kenya: An Entrepreneurial Revolution in the Making.

This has been replicated in many countries in Africa, and around the world. Since its fledgling inception and launch in 2007, penetration now stands at over 25 million subscribers, who transact over KShs15 billion daily.

On the mobile telephony platform, Kenya now enjoys affordable voice and data rates, to the extent that we have now switched places – our business associates and family members living outside the country ask us to call them, because it is cheaper for us!

It is therefore, as immensely gratifying as it is profoundly humbling for me to have been one of the people who took the risk that propelled Kenya to the forefront of the mobile telephony and mobile money revolution. This innovation has transformed lives – from simple purchase of groceries, to accessing, and paying for, health services.

In response to requests to share the experiences on what it entails to leapfrog from obscurity to a world leader, we have chronicled our experiences in the book, Digital Kenya: An Entrepreneurial Revolution in the Making. In it, capture some of the contributing factors and the stories around Kenya’s rise in ICTs. As well, we investigate the power of technology to strengthen every sector of entrepreneurship as the key driver in innovation, creativity and disruption. We have recorded the as yet undocumented story of technology start-ups, entrepreneurship, and the dynamic policy making that ushered in a new era for Kenya.

There are many reasons why we succeeded, key among them: political will; a dynamic approach to policy making and implementation; and the courage to effectively provide the requisite supporting ICT infrastructure.

Digital Kenya addresses the various aspects of these technological changes, innovations, and entrepreneurial activities, policy formulation, impediments, and opportunities. It is the first book to chronicle the digital entrepreneurship revolution in Africa and describe how it has emerged in the face of high unemployment rates, poverty, inadequate technological infrastructure, and disparate cultural interpretations of entrepreneurialism and risk taking. The book heralds a transformative way of identifying and understanding emergent opportunities in the digital world, and how best to exploit them.

For a long time, ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ in technology were only latent concepts in Africa in general, and Kenya in particular, until the advent of the digital age. To mark how far we have come, we should remember that in 1982, the Kenyan government banned the use of computers in public offices for fear that the new technology would render secretarial jobs redundant. Today, however, virtually every public office has computers — with more people than ever engaged in their use — to enhance service delivery.

In addition, we have analyzed the development of pro-entrepreneurialism policies and partnerships in Kenya that facilitated disruption. A five-point policy became a key driver of the paradigm shift — focusing on the development of ICT infrastructure; leveraging on mobile platforms to build applications; creation of local content; building of human resource capacity; development of public–private partnerships; and creation of employment opportunities for the growing youth population. The result is that Kenya’s policy environment has become a conduit for successful ICT development.

Digital Kenya brings into perspective the ongoing debate about adoption of disruptive ICTs in Kenya and throughout the world. Kenya is a formidable player on the national and international ICT arena – our own innovations, such as M-Pesa, Ushahidi, BRCK, and BitPesa, are causing significant disruptions locally, and globally, and many more Kenyan-led innovations are underway. To ensure that Kenya and Africa continue to contribute to this important growth, we must open up the conversation about entrepreneurialism and risk, and similarly be supportive of disruptions coming from elsewhere.

It is our hope that Digital Kenya will encourage policymakers to approach policy formulation and implementation differently. Chapter 12, ‘Inside a Policymaker’s Mind: An Entrepreneurial Approach to Policy Development and Implementation’, outlines strategies for dealing with some of the more pressing issues that could revolutionise how we tackle development challenges so as to make real progress toward the achievement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. One such strategy is opening access to hospital registry records for researchers to use in discovering new patterns of diseases and ultimately improve health systems around the world.

When Africa’s digital story is written, it is highly likely that Kenya will assume its rightful place as the cradle of ICT revolution on the continent. Never before has an African nation gone through such disruption as the digital transformation that has occurred, and is still advancing in Kenya. With so much creativity and innovation going on, the nation is witnessing a gigantic paradigm shift. It is a revolution of a kind that empowers ordinary citizens and reshapes their communities and lifestyles, heralding a new way of taking advantage of the problems that we face, thinking about and understanding entrepreneurial opportunities and providing solutions for them.

I am confident that after reading the book, whether you are a policy maker, an investor or just anyone with interest in Africa, you will have appreciated Africa’s enormous untapped potential as a major player on the ICT disruptive space. With the right leadership, political will, and global partnerships, Africa will take its rightful place as a major contributor to innovation in the world.

Bitange Ndemo is a former Permanent Sectary in Kenya’s Ministry of Information and Communications and currently a professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Follow him on Twitter

Digital Kenya: An Entrepreneurial Revolution in the Making is available as an open-source digital download here, and in print here

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