ICT lessons for Kenya from Estonia

Uhuru Kenyatta, Kersti Kaljulaid

President Uhuru Kenyatta with Estonia's Kersti Kaljulaid at State House, Nairobi, at the start of her official visit to Kenya on September 9, 2021. NMG PHOTO

Last week Kenya had the privilege of hosting the fifth President of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid, during her State visit.

Estonia, one of the Baltic states, elected her in 2016 at 46. She is the youngest President the country has had and first female since its first Independence in 1918.

And when the country regained Independence in 1991, she has been among the leaders who have seen Estonia transform itself into a model democracy and a remarkable e-society country.

Her mission to Nairobi was to seek collaboration with Kenya in matters ICTs.

Accompanying her were several private sector players and academics who are key in the country’s economic development.

I had participated as a panellist at the High-Level Think-Tank meeting on ‘Sustainability for e-Governance in Kenya’ that Strathmore University hosted in collaboration with TalTech University of Estonia.

They decided to embrace ICTs to transform the country’s economy and now are leaders in the world in digitalisation with 99 percent of their public services being online.

Broadband in this nation of 1.3 million people is considered to be a human rights issue. Therefore, access to affordable broadband to almost everyone has propelled the country’s entrepreneurialism and innovations to global levels.

Already Estonian enterprises such as ride hailing firm Bolt are thriving in Kenya.

Estonia’s model of e-government is now the gold standard of how governments can do a better job of delivering services to the people.

They have made it easier for their citizens to do virtually anything online — from voting to passport renewal, e-identity (digitized citizens), car registration, to e-health. Their vision is to move all basic services into fully digital mode.

Leveraging its strong digital learning, infrastructure, policies, and people’s attitude to digital learning the country has built one of the strongest education systems in the world. Recent ranking by OECD shows that Estonia is leading in student skills in entire Europe.

Estonia has dealt with the costly silo systems that bog down many governments by using a standardised system that enables government departments and agencies to share sign-in information and databases.

These are part of the back-office systems that support online services and now their systems can talk to each other. This means that new services can be developed and accessed quickly and cheaply by ordinary citizens.

Estonia is a natural resource-poor country.

Its major resources include oil shale, construction sand and gravel, sea mud, ceramic clay, peat, limestone cement, blue clay, and granite. But the service sector — dominated by transportation, telecommunications, and banking — contributes the most (70 percent) to GDP.

There are many lessons we can learn from Estonia. First is the focus and determination to succeed through education and ICTs.

Digitalisation has come with many efficiencies and enhanced productivity. The debate among economists is whether Africa can develop without going through the traditional models of economic growth, that is, from informality to industrialisation.

In my view, just like in Estonia where broadband was considered a human rights issue, we can adopt that to ensure that every citizen can access affordable Internet.

Use the broadband for intensified learning and as aggregation points for services and products such as agricultural produce, development data, education, marketing, value addition, data analytics and also to supply critical predictive information in vernacular.

Further, link these centres to a national market place connecting the rural to urban and on to the global value chains at the village level.

We can also learn from Estonia that economic development is not a linear process guided by governments, but rather a collaborative process involving the citizens, private sector, and academia.