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Here are a few opportunities we missed in the census

Thursday September 19 2019

By BITANGE NDEMO
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The census came in overalls and looked like work to the enumerators.

After carefully listening to their questions, I concluded that they lost a great opportunity.

It was just as Thomas Edison once said: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

The exercise was a great opportunity to gather the data necessary for the achievement of the Big Four Agenda, the president’s legacy agenda, but they missed that opportunity.

It would not have taken a minute longer to ask questions such as: Do you have medical insurance? National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF)? Is your home under mortgage?  Indeed a few more questions would have been useful to some of the critical policies in education and social services such as determining national skills inventory.

Data is the fuel of better decision-making. As the country deliberates on how to provide health insurance, it is critically important to know who has health insurance and whether it is through a public or private insurance provider.

This is the only way to establish the number of uninsured people who are likely to receive less medical care and possibly worse health outcomes.

It is estimated that the number of people insured under NHIF is 7.5 million. About 2 million others have private healthcare insurance but this has not translated to health outcomes envisaged under universal healthcare.

The census could have validated these numbers, as they are essential to establishing the precise number of people who lack insurance and are basically a fiscal burden to themselves and their families.

The census came at the height of a discourse on education reforms. We have Kenyans studying all over the world but we have never attempted to establish the country’s skills inventory.

Questions simply focused on the level of education attained but that would have been followed with what they consider their skills to be.

This would have helped to establish a rudimental number of different skills the country has at the moment. We could then have used the numbers to strategically deal with another Agenda Four item like Manufacturing, which has been evading the country for many years.

INNOVATIVE

The use of electronic capture, a first in Kenya’s census, was innovative to say the least, but we should have taken advantage to address one of the most critical problems in the country – the lack of the national addressing system.

Creating a credible addressing system is critical to unlocking the opportunities for many at the bottom of the pyramid. The enumerators could have easily recorded each individual’s Global Positioning System (GPS) location that would then have served as an address.

Ghana for example, launched a National Digital Property Addressing System (NDPAS), simply referred to as the Ghana Post GPS. The aim was to provide every location in the country with a unique digital address.

The benefits for such a system are enormous. With a nationwide database, the country can deal with challenges such as emergency response (ambulance services, fire, disaster etc.), enhance the emergent e-commerce services, enable the police to effectively deal with crime and more other opportunities.

In most countries, censuses include household income (combined incomes in every residence) but this question too was missing from the questionnaire.

Statistics from household income and expenditure is often important in many economic aspects. For example, it can be used to determine minimum wage levels or wage determination that is often contentious between unions and employers. 

It is the absence of such data that we undermine the lives of millions of people even in times of economic boom.

IMPORTANT VARIABLES

Some may argue that it is difficult to collect such data, as many people would not want to volunteer with such data. However, it is well acknowledged that before organisations benefit from big data, they often must deal with bad data.

We can make do with what was captured but future census should take into consideration many important variables. We can also perhaps develop an app whereby the respondent can fill in the questionnaire that will be validated by actual enumerator. That way less time will be spent responding to the questions.

Additionally, we must strive to attain universal insurance coverage as it can be used as a proxy for real-time census.

Census data is important for policy development, planning (especially in public services development as well as resource allocation) and decision-making in a necessary policy and private interventions.

To achieve these varied objectives of a national census, the data collection instrument should have been published earlier, the public asked for suggestions or the process should have been undertaken in consideration of the current policy discourse on Agenda Four.

For now, let us hope that everybody is counted. Whatever that has been collected will be equally important to policy making in the country.  Let us embrace the census as is.

The writer is a professor of entrepreneurship at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. @bantigito