BY PETER WANYONYI
This government, more than any other in our history, came to office on the back of an impressive raft of promises, especially in information and communications technology (ICT). This was not a surprise, for even during the election campaigns, Kenyan voters showed a keen understanding of technology: social media, blogs, and similar technology platforms were filled to the plimsolls with political and economic opinions from everyone and their grandmother, and that has not changed – we remain one of the most technologically active populations on earth.
This is not because of any concerted effort to promote technology use in Kenya, but is rather a result of necessity: in a country long starved of access to telecommunications, the coming of mobile phones and internet was a godsend, and we took to the new platforms like the proverbial ducks to the water. However, one thing has remained true through all this: Kenyans are technology consumers, not technology creators. We generally seek to apply imported technologies rather than create ours from scratch – indeed, even where we have created the odd piece of technology, it has been largely based on what someone else created elsewhere.
It was great news when the new government affirmed their intention to proceed with the manifesto promise to issue laptop devices to each child in primary school in the country. Unfortunately, as always happens in Kenya where large government projects are concerned, the intention is as far as the initiative got: it was swiftly buried in acrimony as various government factions fought tooth and nail over the contracts involved, with politicians in the governing coalition sabotaging each other left and right in their quest to control a slice of the lucrative, billion-shilling tenders involved. The result has been paralysis: three years after the first batch of pupils were supposed to have received their laptops, we still have not issued the tender to supply them. In august last year, then-ICT Minister, Fred Matiangi, promised that the tender would be issued in April this year. That was an admission of failure, and shortly after that Mr Matiangi was transferred to the Education Ministry. The new ICT Minister is Joe Mucheru, a young, experienced ICT professional. He has his work cut out for him, but there are certain aspects of government ICT strategy that he needs to get cracking on, and quickly.
First, ICT education. The reason we are consumers rather than creators is that we have not embedded ICT into our curricula at an early enough age. This has been as a result of a number of hurdles – lack of electricity, limited telecom penetration beyond the main town centres, illiteracy among parents, a shortage of technologically-literate ICT teachers, and so on – and these are issues Mr Mucheru will need to address quite quickly.
It is not very difficult to remediate telecom penetration – the Communications Authority (CA) is tasked with enforcing a Universal Fund rollout of telecom facilities in areas that are off the telecom grid, but the CA has been one of the least effective government regulatory agencies in the country. Telcos have simply ignored their obligations under the Universal Fund, and the CA has done nothing about it. Mr Mucheru needs to shake up the CA, make heads roll if need be, to force the telcos to do their job as required. Away from telecom connectivity, thousands of primary schools around the country simply haven’t got the resources to install electricity connections – and they won’t get those resources any time soon. However, the sun shines for 13 hours every single day in pretty much every corner of Kenya. Solar power kits would be a cheap, easy way to begin connecting some of the schools to electric power for the very first time – and to then allow them to benefit from computing classes.
But what will be taught in those classes? Our primary school curriculum is still focused on multiple-choice-style rote learning, and the manner in which we teach kids leaves little or no room for creativity. Our kids are taught to cram and regurgitate facts without the barest understanding of them – a mind model that simply doesn’t work in the world of ICT, where creativity is king.
Two, ICT project management. Kenya is littered with incomplete IT projects and moribund ICT bodies that the government didn’t think through, and which have become little more than cash cows for connected fat-cats. What is the ICT Authority’s job? How does it differ from the various taskforces that the Ministry of ICT has been throwing at what they perceive to be our ICT shortcomings? What about the wide remits of the various ICT bodies under the Treasury, the Central Bank, Kenya Revenue Authority and so on? These bodies are all running around the same policy issues, tripping each other up and achieving virtually nothing in the end. Mr Mucheru needs to trim these bodies, discard some, whip the rest into shape and re-focus their strategies towards one or two very specific ICT initiatives each. Otherwise, the next reshuffle will come in a year or so and will find us still in the same spot, arguing about what our ICT strategies should be, and whining about how this and that government ICT plan has not been implemented.