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Kenya Rolls Out Digital Villages Project/focus on youth, health, commerce, agriculture, education

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  • Janet Feldman
    Kenya Rolls Out Digital Villages Project - Rebecca Wanjiku, IDG News Service April 02, 2008 Kenya on Tuesday kicked off an ambitious Digital Villages project
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 2, 2008
      Kenya Rolls Out Digital Villages Project
      - Rebecca Wanjiku, IDG News Service

      April 02, 2008 

      Kenya on Tuesday kicked off an ambitious Digital Villages project
      designed to connect the whole country, from rural to urban areas, and
      accelerate growth of information communication technology (ICT).

      The project is a government and private-sector initiative, mapped out
      using political districts. Every constituency represented in
      Parliament will get a minimum of eight workstations, either PCs or
      monitors hooked to PCs, grouped within a 15-kilometer radius.

      The first Digital Villages are expected to go online by the end of
      June. The Ministry of Youth Affairs' Youth Enterprise Fund (YEF) is
      financing the project, rolling it out in 40 constituencies before
      moving to other areas. The experiences of the first constituencies
      will inform implementation in other areas.

      Telecommunication costs and the need to develop local content and
      software applications will challenge the initiative, but officials
      have high hopes.

      "Each Digital Village will have a VSAT base station and will be
      expected to form the basis for e-commerce in the country," said
      Bitange Ndemo, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information
      and Communication.

      Ndemo expects young entrepreneurs to borrow from the YEF. The
      Ministry of Youth Affairs is financing private microfinance
      institutions, and prospective businesspeople are expected to invest
      at least 100,000 Kenyan shillings (US$1,550) to set up a "digital
      village" with two PCs. The ministry says it will provide training in
      entrepreneurship, and the microfinance institutions have existing
      training programs.

      The project will have far-reaching effects for online activities in
      agriculture, health, education and commerce, according to Ndemo. For
      example, instead of nurses and doctors from rural areas going to the
      city for education, the project can deliver the courses online.

      Remote hospitals have not been attractive to doctors and nurses
      because opportunities for career development there are limited. With
      the online courses, the remote hospitals may be more attractive.

      The major contribution to the health sector will be the ability to
      deliver health services to remote areas through online consultation.
      With the computer and Internet connectivity, a doctor can take a
      photo, scan it, and send it to a doctor in the referral hospital for
      expert opinion.

      The plan has some critics. Joseph Kamau, a 22-year-old Nairobi
      businessman, does not think the project will benefit relatives who
      live in a village. He argues that most people walk long distances to
      the hospital and may not have the time to wait until a local doctor's
      e-mail is answered.

      Ndemo argues that once people get used to Digital Village technology,
      they will design appropriate mechanisms to make it a success.

      "There is the simple but horrible truth that most people in the U.S.
      and Europe never think about Africans," Ndemo said. "Digital villages
      open up international communications. The people cease to be
      invisible. Well-made items that seem exotic and come from a village
      are hot consumer items in upscale fashion stores in the U.S."

      The Internet will be used to sell all sorts of items made by people
      in the village to supplement farming income, Ndemo added.

      This argument was supported by David Owino from Kenya Data Networks
      (KDN), a private sector project partner, who argued that the project
      will spur competition and innovation between rural and urban areas in

      Mary Njoki, a resident of Murang'a (about 100kms from Nairobi) who
      uses a computer in her secretarial job, feels that the project will
      benefit mainly young people. "Does my mother have time to start
      learning about computers now? No, because most of her time is spent
      in the farm," Njoki said.

      E-commerce projects will be spearheaded by the younger generation,
      who will replace the current middlemen, known to exploit farmers,
      Njoki said. She foresees the new generation of middlemen as being
      mainly online, and business being transacted over the phone compared
      to current practice, where people walk long distances to communicate
      in person.

      The Digital Villages project is also meant to spur the business-
      process outsourcing (BPO) industry, and will encourage young people
      to target local businesses and local offices that could outsource
      noncore services.

      BPO possibilities include schools (for end-of-term results tallying),
      hospitals (record entry and maintenance), local municipal authorities
      (customer care), supermarkets and shops (record keeping and data
      entry) and government offices (public support). Most people who come
      to Nairobi every morning from rural areas visit government offices
      for one reason or another. Some of them have simple queries that
      could be answered at the click of a button.

      Software development in rural areas and maintenance of PCs used in
      the Digital Villages project, however, are sure to be a challenge.

      Kenya has focused on hardware and infrastructure, but has neglected
      software development and local content, according to Barrack Otieno,
      a Nairobi-based technology expert.

      "Unless we have proper strategies in place to govern software
      development issues, then the issues of local content might as well be
      a pipe dream. We need to encourage development of local solutions,"
      Otieno said.

      Industry insiders hope that innovative Kenyans will use local
      languages to develop content and make Internet navigation easier for
      people in the country. The government is in the process of digitizing
      all records from the chaotic Ministry of Lands to the Judiciary,
      according to Ndemo.

      Digitizing public information and ways to access it easily is the
      first goal of the Digital Village project.

      Up to now, there has been no concerted effort to convince Kenyans to
      develop and share content. Most sites visited by Kenyans are free e-
      mail sites. This means that, although cable infrastructure is being
      laid, the country will continue paying for international traffic.

      The whole project has been pegged on the much-hyped fiber-optic
      cables that are currently being built. Though the project will first
      be implemented using VSAT, fiber connections will be used when
      available. The government hopes that the cable infrastructure will
      lower the cost of bandwidth and facilitate Internet connection.

      Using VSAT technology, the cost of a Digital Villages setup would be
      about 325,000 shillings (US$5,000), and bandwidth for 128/256k bps
      would be 87,750 shillings (US$ 1350) per month. This would be a stiff
      price for many businesses. With the fiber-optic cables, immense
      competition is expected to deliver higher quality of service at a
      cheaper rate.

      Kenya is currently expecting four cables to land in the coastal city
      of Mombasa in two years: TEAMs, a cable project between the
      government and the private sector; SEACOM, backed by the U.S.; EASSY,
      a pan-African cable; and Flag, an initiative from India.

      The TEAMs fiber-optic cable is expected to be finished by January of
      next year, while the others have not set a definite timeline.

      Copyright © 2008 IDG News Service. All rights reserved. IDG News
      Service is a trademark of International Data Group, Inc.

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