February 16, 2021
Needed: An Ecosystem for Meaningful Digital Innovation in Northern Kenya
contributor: Jacob Mugendi
The author, Jacob Mugendi, discusses this research on a panel in a recorded E4C Webinar, Digital Development in Kenya: Challenges and Opportunities.
The information and communications technology (ICT) industry thrives in Kenyan cities, but vast rural tracts in Northern Kenya are stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide. One of the weakest links is a lack of infrastructure, both for offline use such as roads, and for the use of screens such as Internet connections. The Kenyan technology sector has developed digital solutions to challenges that confront Northern Kenya, but many of them fall short. There are, however, a few that hold potential to improve education, agriculture, healthcare and employment.
To better understand the current state and potential for digital technologies in Northern Kenya, Engineering for Change, in partnership with Huawei and iGov Africa, carried out a landscape analysis of ICT in Northern Kenya. My team and I synthesized insights from research and interviews with community members and expert practitioners to identify sector-wide trends, gaps, and opportunities for ICT solutions in the region. These are some of our findings. For the detailed analysis, please see our report, The ICT Landscape in Northern Kenya: Challenges and Opportunities.
Northern Kenya comprises 70 percent of the country’s land area, but its economic development suffers from poor roads, Internet access and other infrastructure deficiencies. Literacy levels are also low, and digital skills are scarce, making it difficult to implement digital solutions.
The region also lacks a vibrant innovation ecosystem. That places Northern Kenya in a distinct category from the rest of the country. Innovation labs and incubation hubs are often located in urban areas, where designers are not as likely to understand rural Kenya and its problems. The problem is compounded by the lack of support for innovators from those rural communities in Northern Kenya. Without an active innovation ecosystem, innovators from Northern Kenya are denied the much needed exposure to inspire them to innovate for the region. Without this exposure, young people have fewer options for career choices, and already-established businesses do not always recognize the opportunities that may exist in the digital economy.
While many digital technologies fizzle before launch, or fail to deliver on their promises in Northern Kenya, there are some innovative ways that people from the region are using ICT. A few examples are shown in the figure below.
Recommendations for digital innovation
Within key development sectors, a variety of opportunities to leverage ICT solutions exist.
Education: Improving teachers’ access to materials and creating digital libraries may help bring new insights into classrooms.
Healthcare: Information sharing, remote access to health experts, and rapid support may provide individuals with more accessible health care.
Jobs: Networking and online mentorship programs can connect young adults to a wider job market.
Agriculture: ICT solutions can also be designed to connect farmers with markets, provide insurance products and predict and prepare for changes in weather.
However, to build a thriving ecosystem for technology innovation in Northern Kenya, partnerships, policies, and an enabling environment for entrepreneurship is needed.
Most of the challenges identified would require the involvement of multiple stakeholders for effective solutions. Taking the example of lack of access to the internet, the low population density in the region means that telcos would need to make heavy investments to cover the whole region while the returns are minimal. Such a challenge can be tackled through involvement of the government through subsidy and grants to the telcos and both growing and improving utilisation of the National Optical Fiber Backbone Infrastructure (NOFBI). Major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) could also share key infrastructure while the last mile connectivity can be done by local entrepreneurs.
A similar approach could be applied to healthcare, where both local and national government partner with private healthcare providers who are providing digital solutions to tackle problems such as health insurance as well as healthcare financing. Private healthcare providers would need incentives to venture into this region, mobile network coverage would need to be increased to make digital solutions feasible, affordable smartphones would be needed for the local population to enjoy the maximum benefits of digital solutions, and digital skills would need to be offered for people to use the services.
Innovators have cited the high cost of market entry as a major challenge and the solution to this is to partner with other players to bring down the cost. They can be helped with market research, local knowledge, local distribution/marketing amongst others in launching the products, and one major partner who can help here is the local governments.
There are several policies both by the National and County governments that help make the digital revolution possible in Northern Kenya. However, opportunities exist to accelerate the rate of adoption and make digital innovation native to the region.
Policies should be designed to encourage digital entrepreneurs to thrive in the region. This could include subsidizing the cost for critical infrastructure and giving incentives where necessary. Through vocational training institutes, the young people can also be equipped with relevant digital skills that are necessary to thrive in the digital economy.
Enabling environment for entrepreneurs
To develop a thriving ICT ecosystem in Northern Kenya, more entrepreneurs are needed to create context-specific digital solutions. For this to happen, there needs to be an enabling environment that will attract the innovators and enable them to navigate the local environment. In addition, local people need to be supported and empowered to create digital solutions because they are best placed to solve challenges facing their region.
This could be done by establishing innovation hubs located in the region which innovators can use as launchpads for their ideas. These can also serve to empower the people in the region through providing skills and mentorship opportunities. Through partnerships with local stakeholders, business people in the region could be taught to take advantage of opportunities offered by e-commerce, enabling them to sell their unique products to people all over the globe.
Digital success in Northern Kenya
While there are numerous challenges facing Northern Kenya today, use of digital technologies provides an opportunity to tackle most of these in an effective way. To make this a reality, we need to have different stakeholders working towards making digital technologies a success in the region.
About the Author
Jacob Mugendi is an electrical engineer in Nairobi, Kenua, with experience in ICT. He is a former E4C Research Fellow and consults at Aslan Afrika Limited, where his work empowers people to use digital technologies. He is also a columnist with iAfrikan Media and Techmoran, where he documents issues in the field of technology, business, and how digital technology is impacting people in the East Africa region.