ELIUD OWALO: Will strategist deliver Kenya's ICT goodies?


ICT Cabinet secretary, Eliud Owalo. ILLUSTRATION | JOSEPH BARASA | NMG

ICT Cabinet secretary Eliud Owalo must understand well the adage that the riskier the bet the higher the reward.

By supporting William Ruto for the presidency during the August General Election, Mr Owalo had staked everything on the ‘‘away team’’ when regional politics overwhelmingly bet on Raila Odinga.

The gamble could backfire badly and sink the man from Asembo, Siaya, into oblivion or elevate him to national prominence.

His appointment in September to head the powerful ICT ministry upon Dr Ruto’s victory placed him in the driving seat of the digital agenda and effectively made him one of the most influential men in the current regime.

His bet had paid off.

Hosting President Ruto in his Nyanza backyard last week for his homecoming party added more jewels to the crown of this professional whose fortune seems to be on an incline.

Mr Owalo’s Cabinet position is the culmination of an illustrious two-decade career as an economist, strategist and management consultant.

Now 56, the PhD student at the University of Nairobi is easily among the most experienced members of the Cabinet.

During his vetting, National Assembly Speaker Moses Wetang’ula had to interrupt him as he went on and on detailing his competencies.

Part of his Sh645 million fortune has been made by consulting for the government through his firm Eliud & Associates, which he founded in 2001.

He prides himself with helping to develop a staggering 50 strategic plans for ministries and parastatals.

As soon as he was sworn in, Mr Owalo hit the ground running. The Cabinet secretary has been across the country launching free Wi-Fi hotspots – 17 so far in Nairobi, Nyeri, Kisumu, Siaya, Nandi and Kericho counties.

He says the government targets 25,000 such spots by 2027, with 5,000 per year.

"We are targeting schools, markets and different value chains. This is to enable Kenyans to engage in e-commerce and to allow sellers to showcase their products," says Mr Owalo.

For this Cabinet secretary, only ambition rivals his work rate. He believes Kenya can create between 1.5 and two million new jobs every year by leveraging digital technology.

"Kenyans need to understand that we no longer have [many] white collar jobs [like] before. The reward in white-collar jobs is not commensurate with your contributing component because of competition in the labour market," he says.

The high cost of data is one of the drawbacks of the agenda. Mr Owalo notes that the solution lies in the use of shared infrastructure where market players enjoy economies of scale rather than duplicating the facilities.

"If we lowered the cost of ICT infrastructure, we would then be able to [have] affordable Internet everywhere, up to the village and even the household level," he says.

ICT in Kenya is dominated by a handful of players who, according to Mr Owalo, exhibit "monopolistic, globalistic and legalistic" tendencies. He proposes "prudent competition laws" to level the field for all.

Responding to plans by the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) to tax income from online jobs, Mr Owalo says ICT is an opportunity for the government to earn revenue as one of the fastest-growing industries in Kenya.

Reforms at the national broadcaster, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), to make it more competitive and influential in the market, are long overdue, he says.

"It is ironic that KBC with its strong brand and wide network of infrastructure is today punching below its weight. We can leverage ICT to re-engineer the content of KBC so that it gets effective positioning in the market," says Mr Owalo.

One of his proposals is to revert to the broadcaster’s original name Voice of Kenya as part of the rebranding process.

There could also be plans to "revitalise" and, possibly, to acquire new equipment for KBC, so that "it is in tandem not just with market needs but also benchmarked with global best practices in the industry".

He says his past in consultancy will not get in the way of his work as a minister. "There will be absolutely no conflict of interest on my part with respect to my consultancy assignments," said Mr Owalo.

Fourteen years later, Konza Technopolis Development Authority remains a dream without little to show for the heavy investment by the government. Critics say the project has failed to live up to its promise.

The CS, though, believes Konza is a "feasible proposition" in the digital marketplace.

"We have already put in place all the necessary ICT infrastructure with a fully-fledged and functional data centre. We appeal to the private sector to come in and invest in that digital space," he said during a recent interview.

Mr Owalo is married to Jaqueline Muga, an economist and finance expert who is a member of the Kenya Export Promotion and Branding Agency.

Ahead of President Ruto’s Nyanza visit last week, Mr Owalo came under criticism for erecting billboards to "welcome" the Head of State to the region, with some accusing him of wastage of resources as others read sycophancy in the gesture.

"A visit to any part of the county by the president or any other public servant should never be treated as a privilege," one Kenyan commented.

Mr Owalo is aware of the milestones of his predecessors Joe Mucheru and Fred Matiang’i that have transformed the ICT landscape in the past 10 years, and therefore, the large shoes he has to fill.

He is also aware of their shortcomings. In July 2020, for instance, Mr Mucheru launched ‘Google balloons’ to supply the Internet to different parts of the country.

The cost of the project was a highly guarded State secret. The fate of that project is unknown.

"Mistakes made should not inhibit good intentions. We believe in pursuing a futuristic agenda by looking for lessons from what has been done before," he quips.

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