In the West, to be without an address is debilitating. With no address, the ‘system’ can only understand a person as homeless. They fall under no area’s responsibilities. They cannot get specialist health appointments – always notified by post to their home address - hold a bank account, a driving licence, or receive any state payment. They are unlikely to even get a job.
Yet Kenya operates as an entire nation without addresses or locations for anyone.
The consequences are profound, and play out across our whole economy.
Take the time wastage we all experience in finding locations. If just one in 25 Kenyans gets locked into a half-hour location search once in a week that’s a million hours of searching each seven days adding up to 114 years of wasted person hours, which becomes nearly half a century of lost ‘human effort’ time each and every month.
And, honestly, do you only end up searching for a location only twice a year, as a one in 25? The estimate is an understatement.
Now if that isn’t a competitive disadvantage or something we can count as hindering the ease of doing business, then what is?
Yet we have all experienced the misery of trying to locate people at their home address or business premises with no street names shown, no street number, and directions that read something like: “Follow the road for several kilometres until you see All Saints Church on your right, after that there is an apartment block on the left and then a large area of trees and we are the 8th house after the trees.”
Who among us has knocked on three seeming 8th houses after trees before getting the right one, or never understood the scraps of acacias as a large area of trees at all? And often the address isn’t even as good as that.
Of course, location pins have helped - except at those weird and rather too frequent times where the pin just roves off to some other place.
My own team recently spent 40 minutes tracking down a factory from a pin that was firmly sat on a car sales showroom in Thika that was most definitely not the factory we had programmed in. Asking later, we were told, ‘oh yes, there seems to be a quirk with the signal, the pin is often off’.
Thus, we must all learn to recognise someone else’s idea of a large patch of trees, versus all the other types of tree patches, and cope with technology sending us to entirely the wrong location.
And then look at what all this no-addressing does to what we can have in our homes and what we can do. We were recently handling the marketing for a product launch for home internet subscribers, thousands of them. The launch meant every existing user was entitled to extra services, but an SMS blast tied us all to 140 characters, so we asked the installation team for the list of customer locations to set up leafletting.
I have never seen a document quite like it, even for apartments: “The red door at the end of the corridor on the third floor turning left from the stairs.”
For some of the connections we didn’t even have a location at all, yet the customers have the company’s routers, which is business savagery when clients stop paying, but equipment can in no way be retrieved.
Then, there is the world of e-commerce passing us by. Getting home deliveries is a walk into the face of an ‘address-less’ society. We watch companies that succeed elsewhere simply close here on distribution costs.
So why do we never address our no addresses? Even now, we are creating Huduma numbers for every Kenyan, in the sophistication of e-government that requires a single identity. Yet we cannot organise a road sign or the numbering of houses?
Not even one team, three people, a map in a room, walking up a street, counting house 1, 2, 3, 4, and issuing notices of the new house number and that it must be displayed? To save a half century or even two centuries a month of lost effort?