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Ideas & Debate

It’s time to more closely examine Kenya’s plans for a digital future

Digital Kenya
It’s time for all of us to more closely engage with what is emerging as an intriguing “Digital Kenya” of the future. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

As they assumed national political leadership in 2013, President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto – the (then) “dynamic duo” – promised to deliver a superior”digital” agenda to what they derided as the “analogue” one of the (then) CORD opposition.

It hasn’t quite gone to plan, with hiccups experienced over the laptops (now digital literacy) project, and controversy associated with the Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS), e-citizen services and, most recently, the IEBC-related Kenya Integrated Electoral Management System (KIEMS).

Meanwhile, digitisation of land registries seems to have been ongoing for at least a decade. More positively, however, recent mapping of various county land cadastres seems to have succeeded.

That the government’s ICT investment agenda is now centralised in, and coordinated from, the ICT ministry is probably another piece of good news. So, let’s begin today’s story from this positive note, and look at three recent “digital-related” events.

First, this week’s formation of a joint ICT and Treasury technical secretariat to improve ongoing ICT investment. This followed the release of a couple of important documents that signal what Kenya’s digital future might look like.

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The first of these was the recent launch of Kenya’s Digital Economy Blueprint by Mr Kenyatta in Kigali, Rwanda.

Second, the report of the Digital Ledger Technology and Artificial Intelligence (DLT&AI) Task Force. I am a partial skeptic of the notion of technology as the answer to Kenya’s political, social and economic challenges; a skepticism that has grown with Government’s recent, ham-fisted approach to Huduma Namba; an exercise that should really be at the core of digitisalition.

However, I digress. Let’s begin with the Digital Economy Blueprint drafted not simply for Kenya, but the rest of Africa too). It begins with the vision of a “digitally empowered citizenry, living in a digitally enabled society”.

The blueprint broadly defines the digital economy (bigger than the Internet economy) as “the entirety of sectors that operate using digitally-enabled communications and networks leveraging internet, mobile and other technologies” (irrespective of industry). It is built around five pillars.

First, digital government (and platforms for public service delivery). Second, digital business as a robust marketplace for digital trade, digital financial services and digital content.

Third, infrastructure that is affordable, accessible, resilient and reliable. Fourth, an ecosystem of homegrown firms to generate world class products and services.

Finally, a digitally skilled workforce. Included in the blueprint are words on Konza Technopolis as the first of Kenya’s future “smart cities”.

Yet, even for a blueprint, it seems pretty generic, speaking to the usual suspects of “youth and SMEs”, without a futuristic view of what digital means for agriculture, industry and services (or alternatively, what the future of agriculture, industry and services looks like, and how digital might help). It might also have helped to have some thoughts on the future of work, and, say, customer service.

The DLT&AI Task Force report is a heavier technical (or is it technological) tome. A multi-strategy framework is proposed for its implementation. The report focuses on the application of blockchain technology and artificial intelligence as high potential problem solving and opportunity exploiting tools.

The outcomes targeted are rather ambitious. The elimination of corruption. The minimisation of public debt (through the use of digital assets). Streamlining of democracy and elections. Improved financial inclusion. Better public service delivery. An improved national anti-corruption rating by 2022.

Key strategies driving the agenda include a national digital infrastructure framework (Huduma Namba, anyone?), a digital assets framework, the introduction of a Central Bank-backed digital (fiat) currency, tokenisation of the economy through the Ajira platform, and the use of regulatory sandboxes (basically, pilots) for fintech innovations. Add multi-sector partnerships, and an emerging technology “brain trust”.

The Big Four agenda features strongly in the recommendations, with multiple uses of blockchain and artificial intelligence to streamline agriculture supply chains, lower housing finance costs, track drug supply chains, provide disease control analytics, eliminate counterfeits and clean up land titling.

As with the earlier report, have we envisaged the future of everything first, or is digital the future of everything? This isn’t an idle question, but a point for further reflection.

I suspect that it’s time for all of us to more closely engage with what is emerging as an intriguing “Digital Kenya” of the future.

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