Dawn of a New Era

May 10, 2009

, NAIROBI, Kenya, May 11 – The Government ICT Forum 2009 was held at the Panafric Hotel on May 7, where dignitaries detailed the dawn of a new era for the country.

“We’d like to plant some seeds in your minds,” Jonathan Somen, the AccessKenya Group MD said.

Well, if anything I heard is remotely possible, the seeds in my mind will be full blown trees by tonight, for it is undeniable: the possibilities of ICT for Kenya and the rest of Africa are mind-blowing.

This year, Kenya will welcome two fibre optic cables though The East African Marine System (TEAMS) and the Seacom project, with the first already expected in July.

TEAMS is an initiative spearheaded in 2006 by the government of Kenya, to link the country to the rest of the world through a submarine fibre optic cable. The Seacom project is privately funded, but mostly African-owned. It aims to provide high capacity bandwidth to link business and communities in Southern and East Africa, Europe and South Asia.

Ok, now the jargon’s over, this is what is translates into practically: Fibre Optic Cabling, whatever it is, will transform Kenya in the following ways:

For the Government

•  Literally billions in savings – just the shift from our current systems to the IP system that the Fibre Optic Cable will bring, will save the government Sh15 billion, to spend where it’s really needed. Some of it has already been committed to financing computers for all tertiary institutions (Yey!)

•  More savings! – The Kenyan government foresees advantages in outsourcing government services, to benefit from lower costs, and higher levels of efficiency. The focus is expected to shift from cost to actual customer service –how great would that be? Teleconferencing has already saved the government a bundle in travel costs. Next to arrive will be video conferencing.

The establishment of IFMIS (Integrated Financial Management Information System) –Currently government departments, offices and parastatals operate in various ways, with different systems. IFMIS is set to regularise and regulate the disbursement of funds across the board, so that even moves from one department to another should become seamless, work wise. This is most importantly set to promote transparency and eradicate corruption. As MP James Rege said: “Those who like to put their dirty fingers in public coffers –forget it.”

GDP on the up and up! – By setting the pace and a great example for its people, the government is expected to initiate a period of tremendous growth in development for the country. It’s not just up to those in power though, as PS for the Ministry of Information and Communication, Dr Bitange Ndemo said emphatically. ICT is a solution to boosted productivity and the sustenance of economic development, but Kenyans must make up their minds to master and use the technology.

And if they don’t, the PS said firmly; “wapende, wasipende,” implementation of the technology will force them to set aside their fears and any misgivings. He gave the example of expected changes in the banking sector, where multiple branches will be closed, and automatic tellers set up instead. In the future, we should also expect to do almost all of our banking online. It’s bad news for tellers, but how wonderful is ‘no queuing’!

A country’s use of ICT has been recognised as quantifiable indication of its state of development and progress. In Kenya, use stands at 6 pecent, against 70 percent in the UK and the US. South Africa stands at a surprising 8 percent whilst China’s use remains not more than 15 percent, despite its massive populace.

Digitalisation and the sharing of services – as you read this, and in preparation for the arrival of the cables, the government is very busy digitalising its files. Very soon, we won’t have to take the day off to be able to go to government offices and queue for things like ID, Passport and Driving License disbursement / replacement / renewal, NHIF, the verification of pension amounts at the NSSF, the registration of lands, licences etc. Instead, we will log onto government websites (safely) and check on everything ourselves, at our convenience. The government is focusing initially on three departments: Land, Motor Vehicles and the Judiciary.

The anticipated direct benefits for you include;

Digital TV – You’ve heard about it but you didn’t know when it would come to pass; it’s coming to pass in the next two months. No more hangers needed, or any other form of aerial for that matter, twisted, teased and hung at awkward angles from battered windows and roofs! No more flickering images either. The digital system will provide clear, uninterrupted viewing, no matter what the weather. (Hooray!)

Low Cost –as use of the fibre optics increases in popularity and use, the cost of all things ICT should diminish beautifully, allowing you to buy even ‘cucu’ a laptop and webcam!

The PASHA (Connecting the Grassroots) project – The PASHA is an initiative of the Kenya ICT Board, of which Paul Kukubo is the CEO. The project aims to take advantage of the fact that you neither have to own software nor hardware in order to make a living or create jobs (e.g: Google Apps). With the reliability of fibre optics, this should be even more emphasised and highlighted, especially with regard to entrepreneurs, SMEs and those professionals in rural areas. Mr. Kukubo set out a beautiful vision for Kenyans at the conference, where “people who understand technology can become the focal points in their communities”.

A connected typist living in the same area could help a local bus company to digitise its records, whilst a connected accountant could do its accounts. Or they could work for companies in Nairobi, who needed to outsource work, at a lower cost (beneficial to all parties, as living costs in the rural areas are lower). A connected lawyer living in a Kenyan boondocks, could work, not only for clients in his community, but also directly with other lawyers in Nairobi, whilst a connected hairdresser could offer community members a way to chat with family members and friends who are far away or abroad.

The PASHA project is actively looking to work with these entrepreneurs in the rural areas, who have the advantage of knowing the needs and wants of the local community. The government is expecting to outsource work to these and other rural outfits, to maximise the efficiency and efficacy of their services, which haven’t worked well in the past, precisely because they were not tailored to individual communities. PASHA has already hired 7,000 candidates, whom they will train in business management skills, before hopefully subsidizing an ICT centre for them to run. They hope to establish digital access centres, complete with a training room, as attachments to retail outlets all through the country.

Check out http://www.ict.go.ke/ for more information on The PASHA project, and Mr Kukubo’s ongoing conversation on ICT via his blog at http://paulkukubo.com/ 

Self-employment, a truly viable option –Your own business is no longer an impossible dream. With available software and hardware that you don’t even have to own to use, your start up costs could be as low as that of your computer alone! So, for those Kenyans who are ambitious, enterprising, creative and organised –get thinking! Get writing your proposals, visions, budgets and plans! And Good Luck!

The speakers were clear that ICT will revolutionise how we work, where we work, and the nature of work itself. “It is now unacceptable to be unable to function when physically outside of the office.” Mr Paul Kukubo says. He said that one should be able to receive and answer an urgent email via phone, whilst walking down the street, or set up a meeting and enter it into one’s phone calendar.

Mr Rege warned Kenyans that work may become so much fun; they had better set up Internet connection at home. He said he was extremely glad that the government was finally recognising the importance of ICT; however its importance still isn’t being given its full weight. Looking into the medical sector, it will help to prolong lives by, for example, catching cancer early, through the use of MRIs (Magnetic Resonance Imaging).

The possibilities are endless, but no doubt there are those sceptics, rendered knowledgeable by years of disappointment from Kenyan promises, who think simply that TIA (This Is Africa). Even with the fibre optic cables, they can’t imagine that things will sail as smoothly as predicted. They imagine desperation, when the automatic teller suddenly dies or the transfer of funds to wrong accounts, land being registered to X instead of Y and Z finding that his funds have been transferred to A in Cotonou, instead of Kiambu. I understand this well. Africa has its own, slow, bungling way of doing things… but if the e-government is coming to pass, who will rely on this new technology, and promote its advantages, who are we not to put our faith in it, and determine to make the best of it?

“When this thing arrives,” Mr Rege voiced strongly and impressively “grab it and use it to develop this country.” Let’s make that a plan.

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