5 things Kenya has done well to move its ICT forward: lessons for South Africa

WARNING: This blog post about Kenya’s ICT sector achievements, and it is information and data heavy. 

If you are in a rush, rather leave it for later when you can make time. 

Alternatively, read it in sections, as provided for in the Table of Contents below.

Table of Contents

What inspired this post

I recently came back from a trip of 3 cities in West and East Africa.

One of the cities was Nairobi, where I attended The Economist Innovation Summit on the 6th of March, and where one of the discussion points that inspired this post was about the increasing number of multinationals that are setting up base in this East African city.

Being a South African, I felt a bit jealous that this is the case, because for a long time my country has been “the poster girl” for multinational headquarters in Africa.


Tanzania is having her Kiswahili cake. Can she eat it too?

The loss of the said status got me reflecting on what Kenya has done well in the ICT sector to deserve the type of attention that she is getting.

An asideThe first KFC outlet opened its doors at The Junction shopping mall in Nairobi in August of 2011, one month before my first visit ever and 40 years since this American multinational brand opened its first fast food outlet in South Africa.

Today, there are 13 KFC’s in Nairobi alone, thanks partly to the many malls that exist in this bustling cosmopolitan city of 3 million+ inhabitants.

The latest is that Shoprite is heading East as well.

Right timing, given Kenya’s biggest retail chain, Nakumat, is on its knees.

My observations about Kenya

When I first visited Kenya in September of 2011, I was struck by 3 observations.

Kenyans are patriotic.

Many Kenyans show their love for their country by wearing their national flag wristbands.

Any non-Kenyan who has ever traveled to Nairobi will have observed this.

eNitiate | Kenya's ICT Sector | National flag wrist bandIn South Africa, we wore this patriotism on sleeves – very briefly, in my view – during the Fifa Soccer World Cup 2010.

Remember very popular car side mirror flag socks?

However, this euphoria quickly died soon after the 12th of July 2010 – the last day of the world cup – passed.

Unlimited free wifi at restaurants and coffee shops is widespread.

The likes of Java Coffee House and Art Cafe were already offering unlimited free wifi in 2011, and this service was used as a drawcard.eNitiate | Kenya's ICT Sector | Free wifi at restaurants6 years on, many of ZA’s popular restaurants still do not offer unlimited free wifi! Try McDonald’s or Mugg & Bean as examples.

Mobile data is cheaper in Kenya compared to ZA.

The high cost of mobile data in Mzansi (a Zulu word for South Africa) has been my hobby horse since May 2011.

Our data is more expensive than Kenya (where there is Safaricom in which Vodacom has a substantial stake), Tanzania (where Vodacom is the largest mobile operator) and Nigeria (where MTN is the largest mobile operator), the 3 countries that I am doing business in.


Twitter's new 280 character limit is good for African languages

Why are Kenyans giving us, the South Africans, a run for our money? I hope to show with Kenya’s 5 ICT sector achievements here below that South African leaders – myself included – are sleeping at the wheel. 

LESSON 1: The submarine fiber-optic cable race

As the Internet became a key part for the development of African economies, the need to connect the continent to other parts of the world for higher speeds and affordable broadband introduced the era of submarine fiber-optic cable projects.

SEACOMthe 15,000-kilometer broadband fiber-optic submarine cable that connects Europe, and Eastern and Southern Africa – went live on the 23rd of July 2009.

This project was spearheaded by a South African consortium.

Meanwhile, Kenya’s own submarine cable called TEAMS that was spearheaded by the government had gone live on 12 June of the same year.

Reason for this East African country to lay its own cable and not wait for SEACOM?

According to Wikileaks, the Kenyan government had grown frustrated with the ownership model favoured by South Africa, the time it was taking and what it perceived as an attempt by South Africa to control the cable.

Despite the anticipation that South Africa’s SEACOM cable was going to result in high broadband speeds at affordable prices, we have yet to fully enjoy this benefit. 

Africa Submarine Cable Map | March 2018

Meanwhile, Kenya has the honour of being the country with the highest mobile broadband speed and highest Internet penetration in Africa.

eNitiate | Kenya's ICT Sector | Top 10 Countries with Fastest Broadband | March 2018
eNitiate | Kenya's ICT Sector | Top 10 African Countries with Cheapest Data

LESSON 2: Collaborations between Kenyan government, private business and the tech community

The latest StatsSA report indicates that South Africa’s ICT sector contributes 2.7% to the national economy.

Compare that to Kenya’s ICT sector’s contribution of up to 8%.

The ICT sector in East Africa’s largest economy is said to have played a major role in the average annual growth of 3.7% in the last decade, without which the growth would have been reduced to 2.8%.

Another aside. Yes, I know that the economies of these two powerhouses are structurally different, with the largest contributor to Kenya’s economy being the Agriculture sector (24%), and ZA’s being Finance, Real Estate and Business Services sector (21%).

However, there is no denying that the ICT sector is an important driver of future economies anywhere in the world.

I would even go further and say especially in Africa, due to its leapfrogging ability that is sorely needed to get the continent growing faster so as to create job opportunities for its burgeoning youth population.


How Africa achieved the world's highest growth in Internet users between 2000 and 2017

What has Kenya been doing right?

It has been my distinct impression that there is a deliberate, coordinated and effective collaboration between government, private business and the tech community in this country, and the world famous iHub Nairobi has played its part as the meeting place.

A Kenya ICT 2016 review that was published by KICTANet – The Kenya ICT Action Network, a multi-stakeholder platform for people and institutions interested and involved in ICT policy and regulation – highlights the strengths of this collaboration. 

Here below is a selection of responses from the report.

Tap on each image for a zoomed out view.

With the construction of the Konza Technopolis firmly underway and due for completion in 2022, the ICT sector’s role in the Kenyan economy is bound to become even more important.

The South African ICT sector is not immune to the continued misalignment, or worse still – the distrust, between South African government, the corporate industry and civil society at large.

I argue that this unhealthy relationship stands in the way of progress of this and all other sectors of the economy.

LESSON 3: Migration to digital tv

As part of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) treaty, Africa committed to migrate from analogue to digital television by the middle of 2015.

Kenya beat ITU deadline with a 3-phased migration process that started in December of 2014 and ended in March 2015!

Did government face hurdles? Yes, including a legal tussle with the free-to-air tv channels at the time.

But this did not hamper the achievement of the ultimate goal – to move the tv needle to digital.

You can read more about it here.

According to Analysis Mason, only two countries had switched to digital tv one day before the 17 June 2015 deadline – Kenya and Tanzania.

eNitiate | Kenya's ICT Sector | Mason Digital TV Migration Deadline Map | 2018

According to published reports, the Kenyan world of broadcasting has exploded since the migration.

My take is that the resulting digital dividend – that is the freeing up of low-frequency bands that can be used for reaching more people with mobile broadband in a more cost-effective way –  has strengthened Kenya’s position as the leading ICT powerhouse in East Africa, and possibly the continent as a whole.

The status of South Africa’s digital migration project as at 21 March 2018?

We developed the Broadcasting Digital Migration Policy to guide the digital migration process as far back as 2008.

But for reasons that have nothing to do with lack of resources, Mzansi’s tv broadcasting is still stuck in analogue mode almost 10 years after promulgation of the policy and more than 2 years since the expiry of the ITU deadline.

LESSON 4: Huduma the one-stop shop for public services

Huduma Kenya is a ‘one stop shop’ approach in reforming [public] service delivery in Kenya. Huduma Kenya involves amalgamating related services... such as issuance of national identity cards, issuance of birth certificates, registration of business names, and applications of business licences, drivers’ licences, police abstracts… and many other services in one place.

Huduma Kenya was launched in 2013. There are 45 centers across the country at the time of publishing this post, and each one of them incorporates up to 55 various public services.

New Nation | Huduma Kenya | 1 Stop Public Service Article | 2017-1
New Nation | Huduma Kenya | 1 Stop Public Service Article | 2017-2

The Kenyan government is taking this integrated public service concept to the next level in October of this year, by adding an electronic access and payment feature with a Huduma card – the country’s first Government-owned multi-purpose social card.

Hudumu Namba Card | 2017-1
Hudumu Namba Card | 2017-2
Hudumu Namba Card | 2017-3

In essence, this is going to result in citizens getting some of the services delivered electronically, leading to cutting down of long queues and waiting periods, with associated increased efficiencies in the 45 centers.

Read more about the launch of the Huduma card here.

Can you imagine what it would be like to have all public services housed under one roof in South Africa?

Consider how much time citizens and businesses waste going to:

1. Home Affairs for birth certificates, ID cards and passports;

2. Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC) for business registrations;

3. Department of Labour for UIF registrations and other employment-related matters;

4. Licencing department for vehicle licence registrations; and

5. SARS for tax-related issues.

Also consider that all the above public services are not in the same location, with some offices up to 30 km apart!

LESSON 5: Government open data

The government open data initiative is another one of Kenya’s examples that clearly indicate this nation’s forward-thinking culture – a word I use thoughtfully, and can-do attitude.

iHub Nairobi

The caption in the image above – with former Presidet Mooi Kibakia in it – speaks for itself.

I am aware that the government open data initiative has not been the success that it was envisaged to be. This is why it is the last on the list. However, the key lesson for me is the fact that there was a willingness by the government to implement it, which points to a can-do attitude. 

 My point being?

South Africa has a national data portal that DOES NOT have a shred of data in any of the displayed ten theme folders as at the time of publishing this post.

Ironically, Mzansi was one of the first 6 countries that co-founded the global open data initiative called The Open Government Partnership (OPG) in 2011, and was once the lead chair of the Steering Committee of this global body.

So why is it that Mzansi has not moved beyond the talking and actioned as per the OPG pledge? I can only shrug my shoulders in disbelief.

The Kenyan government is considered the most open in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to this Open Data Barometer Report of 2016. South Africa is ranked 2nd. Globally,  the two countries are ranked 35th and 46th respectively.

Giving credit where it is due, StatsSA is still among the best on the continent when it comes to availability of valuable data about the country.

Lessons to be learned for South Africa?

Being a South African, I cannot help but compare Kenya’s achievements with ours – using the 5 lessons above.

I cannot help but be in awe of this East African nation of 49 million inhabitants’ ability to get things done! 

Another aside. South Africa’s  GDP is 4 times Kenya’s at $295 billion.

But at the rate which ICT developments are shaping in the latter, the former’s future lunch is not guaranteed.

In closing:

Here is a test of Kenya’s can-do attitude: The Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta,  has promised that 100% universal health coverage (UHC) will be implemented by 2022.

We call it National Health Insurance in South Africa, and we have made a lot of headway in this regard.

Let’s see if Kenya is going to achieve the set goal as indicated above.

But if history is anything to learn from, then I should not be holding my breath.

Have you got any thoughts about how well Kenya is doing and what South Africa can learn from her?

You are welcome to use the Comment section here below.

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