Kenya Rolls Out Digital Villages Project/focus on youth, health, commerce, agriculture, education
- View SourceKenya 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
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
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
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
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
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,"
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
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.
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