On ICT, Jubilee, Nasa manifestos do little beyond buzzwords

Wednesday July 5 2017

By NANJIRA SAMBULI
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One of the most interesting things about technology is the ease with which one can bamboozle folk with fancy terms and acronyms.

The standard template for speaking about technology in Kenya revolves around M-Pesa, NOFBI (National Optic Fibre Backbone), BPO (Business Process Outsourcing), Konza Tech City, Silicon Savannah, ICT Hubs, and a new addition, Ajira, the recently launched online workplace.

This applies to tech evangelists and policy wonks alike and I can attest to being treated to this template multiple times over. In some quarters, a talk or presentation comprising a permutation of these key phrases is enough to generate praise, perhaps even unlock some capital flows.

Over time, however, one starts to realise there may not be much else behind those lofty terms and their justifications, which should be cause for concern. This is not to trivialise any of the above projects, programs or plans. Each element is a cornerstone of our budding tech ecosystem and overall, we have made good strides.

However, a lot more does need to be done to truly breathe life into some of these. Policy coherence and better accounting or reporting around already deployed projects and the resulting government investments is badly needed.

While there is cause to continue celebrating M-Pesa, we should be turning to the next page in Kenya’s tech chapter for ‘other M-Pesas’ to emerge and thrive, if we truly have set the requisite cornerstones in place.

Last week, we were treated to the launch of Jubilee and Nasa party manifestos. A basic dictionary definition of a manifesto, for the uninitiated, is:

a public declaration of policy and aims, especially one issued before an election by a political party or candidate

Given the increasingly uninspiring, if incompatible, tech visions and plans emanating from policy quarters, as well as the initial reactions I’ve noted to other aspects of the two manifestos, I was very curious about the ICT components in them. So I got to reading.

STYLE OUTDID SUBSTANCE

In the case of Jubilee, I also revisited their 2013 manifesto to study against the newly minted one. I was keen to benchmark their stated achievements against the policy declarations and aims from 2013 against those they are proposing now.

Well, the 2013 version was more ambitious and better explained. The situational analysis back then was laced with language around the challenges, that is, skilling (framed as job creation for youth); adoption of ICT across all policy issues; ICT ‘mainstreaming’ across industries (education system, agriculture, health, business and finance, governance and leadership) and, finally, using ICT to deliver efficient, effective government.

It was then established that the biggest opportunity would come from:

developing our human resource capacity through proper education/courses to not only match but surpass the needs of business and government and even export our local solutions.

Right on, I would add.

Some of the solutions advanced included establishing a universal single registration activated at birth to streamline registration (what became of this?), “progressively" rolling out free Wi-Fi in major towns, creating incubation hubs in each county through the Biashara Kenya agency (in what form does it exist?), and instigating a ‘buy local’ policy for government and parastatals, to enable local Kenyan ICT companies become suppliers (how is this working out?).

Key government processes to be addressed using tech included tackling corruption through IFMIS and embarking on a ‘digital government program’ by cleaning up and streamlining databases. IFMIS has definitely been deployed, and we are all too familiar with how it’s been working. One can never overstate that technology alone isn’t a panacea.

Fast-forward to the 2017 version, and the ‘Africa’s Silicon Savannah’ language is swiftly adopted. It’s perhaps not entirely unexpected that the achievements listed are not directly aligned with the “Digital Takeoff Solutions” from four years ago.

Take the rollout of free Wi-Fi in major towns. In its early days, the Jubilee government, via its Presidential Strategic Communications Unit-Digital (along with the Nakuru County government and Liquid Telecom) launched BilaWaya in Nakuru with great fanfare. Dig deeper, however, and one finds style outdid substance.

POLITICAL PROMISES LADDER

Meanwhile, the closest corresponding achievement in the 2017 manifesto would be that this government has “provided an additional 1,700 kilometres of fibre backbone network bringing the total to 6,000 kilometres covering all 47 counties”.

The stated outcome is that this network has “accelerated ICT development in rural areas and brought digital services to the doorsteps of all Kenyans”. On the surface, this perfectly vague language can wow many.

Then, the Deputy President recently pronounced that free internet for all is coming to all wards, if they are re-elected. This, to me, signalled that internet connectivity is now on the political promises ladder, perhaps because of encountering an ‘internet-hungry’ electorate.

This promise, as far as I can tell, isn’t followed up with a plan on when and how, just that the Ajira platform will offer jobs to tech-savvy youth, and that all the youth will need are bundles to get working. Nobody should be so naïve as to expect such a plan from the campaign trail.

However, once the excitement wanes, a useful set of questions to get us back on track will be: other than Nakuru, how many towns currently enjoy government-sponsored public Wi-Fi rolled out since 2013? Will it be county governments as in 2013, or the national government that will be leading and financing Wi-Fi?

What stalled the “progressive” roll out in major towns, if the fibre backbone network is now at ‘the doorsteps of all Kenyans’? What does ‘free’ mean for quality of internet?

FANFARE-LADEN LAUNCH

In short, the “Building Africa’s Silicon Savannah” segment in the Jubilee manifesto has all the right buzzwords to make “Digital Government 2.0” something we should be excited about.

This government oversaw the revision of our National ICT Policy in 2016 measured against current performance, but somehow has not made public the revised draft after public input.

Absent a coherent policy, the busy-bodying around reactive legislation and regulations – such as those proposed to address cyber security – and even social media regulation, do not induce confidence.

New commitments in the Jubilee manifesto say the erstwhile non-starter, Enterprise Kenya, will, among other things, “support and build the technology entrepreneurship ecosystem in the country”. Never mind that despite yet another fanfare-laden launch in 2015, very little is publicly available around progress or its lack thereof.

Then, the Konza Technology City, dubbed an ingenuity, will be built upon. Your guess is as good as mine on whether the focus will be on infrastructure or the required capacity and incentives, specifically for local tech entrepreneurs to rally behind.

So far, the “build it and they will come” approach to Konza (and many other infrastructural projects) remains a bureaucratic bet, despite many an indication from practitioners that it is an inadequate approach, and therefore an expensive mistake.

NATIONAL ADDRESSING SYSTEM

The Nasa manifesto, on the other hand, is rather modest with its ICT plans. It also carries the language of BPOs as a key promise, but is situated in an interesting critique of national ICT policy thus far; that efforts and resources have been skewed towards physical infrastructure at the expense of ‘soft’ infrastructure, or quality of the workforce.

It goes ahead to place a number on its subsequent promise. A Nasa-led government would create 50,000 BPO and IT-enabled service jobs (ITES) by 2022 (no justification for this number is given, never mind that even Kenya Vision 2030, which champions BPOs and ITES, has barely provided updates on how we are faring with this plan).

One of the other things they promise to do is to “establish an enabling policy and legislative framework for IT-enabled services, in particular data protection and information security legal infrastructure.” They also promise to prioritise a National Addressing System, to ease the awkwardness we all face when asked to fill out ‘physical address’ in various forms.

ORGANIC TECHNOLOGY

Interestingly, Kenya Vision 2030 is currently scoping its Medium-Term Plan-III plans for 2018-2022. How well aligned are these manifestos with the progress so far under the Economic Pillar of  Vision 2030, and the BPO-ITES sector that seemingly spans all ICT industry plans? This is perhaps one of the only true litmus tests to determine which government-in-waiting is in sync with the stakeholders for whom they plan to work.

Overall, I am not convinced that we have sound ICT policy visions informed by organic technology innovation and entrepreneurship insights and experiences in Kenya.

If these manifestos are anything to go by, my reading is that we will continue to be bamboozled with buzzwords and project announcements that cost taxpayers money and stall on truly unleashing potential.

And as I have argued before, ignoring or overlooking the policy space is costly for anyone hoping to break through, whatever sector they operate in.

Policy coherence in ICT is badly needed and hopefully stakeholders will put to the next government to task. Else, expect more benchmarking and incoherent plans and projects that will only leave the dreams of making Kenya into a regional tech hub a mirage.

Twitter: @NiNanjira