Why next government must reboot ICT sector

L-R: ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru, Nigeria Data Protection Bureau National Commissioner Vincent Olatunji and Data Protection Commissioner, Immaculate Kassait at an open Data Protection and Privacy Conference in Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG

During the 2013 General Election, the Jubilee presidential aspirant put out a strong campaign that centred on digitising the economy and unlocking millions of job opportunities for young people.

The two principals, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, who have since fallen out acrimoniously, presented a colourful manifesto that promised to break away from the analogue generation and proposed a new digital way of doing things.

This included public Wi-Fi access in major towns by 2017, more incubation hubs for ICT start-ups and a buy-local policy for public offices to procure local software and hardware from Kenyan companies and cleaning up, and digitising government databases.

While some of the objectives have been met with varying degrees of success, key challenges that face Kenya's ICT sector remain and, in some cases, impediments to growth in the sector have multiplied.

Last year the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) rebased Kenya's economy which more than doubled the contribution of the ICT sector from Sh123 billion to Sh258 billion. KNBS said the sector’s contribution to the economy was undervalued in previous estimates due to shortcomings in the data-measuring process.

New outputs being measured now include activities from telecommunication companies, radio and television broadcasting, publishing activities, and internet service providers among others.

However, the bulk of this new value, up to Sh325 billion is attributable to revenues made from telecommunication companies raising concern that the sector's glowing success relies disproportionately on just one sub-sector.

This raises the question of the fate of other sub-sectors in the industry, particularly as ICT innovation in developed parts of the world accelerates toward new technologies such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, blockchain, the internet of things, and 5G connectivity.

Kenya's much-coveted position as the Silicon Savannah of the region has understandably come under question in recent years particularly as large ICT conventions previously hosted in the country are now held in Kigali, Rwanda.

At the same time, the public sector similarly appears stuck in the doldrums and progress has been slow and disparate. Even today, some government websites for example are yet to update their security certificates despite requiring citizens to provide sensitive personal information to access public services.

New laws such as increasing value-added taxes and excise taxes on digital services and hardware as well as the introduction of a digital services tax have only led to higher price increases for Kenyans and led to a widening of the digital divide.

The same goes for laws like the Computer Crimes and Misuse Act of 2018 and the ICT Practitioners Bill 2021 was rejected by the president last month which has cast doubt on the commitment of Parliament to ease the price of doing business for the ICT sector.

Meanwhile, key actors in the sector such as the Communication Authority and Office of the Data Protection Commissioner (ODPC) are slow to implement policy interventions that are well within their mandates and that can greatly improve the sector.

It took a decisive push from the Central Bank of Kenya CBK to motivate the country's leading telcos to establish interoperable mobile payment platforms.

Even during this period of elections, the ODPC stays mum despite wide-ranging violations of the Data Protection Act 2021 by political aspirants spamming voters and social media companies profiting from hate speech from polarised sections of the electorate.

The outgoing government promised Kenyan youth and entrepreneurs in the digital economy that the time had come to turn the fortunes of the sector around. Build more start-ups, invite more investment and create more jobs. Ten years later these promises have been left largely unfulfilled. The incoming government must do better.

Magu is CEO of Maudhui House, a Public Affairs Consultancy

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