Throughout the twenty-first century, African countries have increasingly adopted digital approaches within their transformation strategies. Some countries – namely Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa – have taken significant steps to digitally empower their citizens and create knowledge-based economies. The growth of the Internet and mobile phone usage in the region have been central to development. According to the ITU, the number of Internet users increased from 2.1% in 2005 to 24.4% in 2018. Greater connectivity has enabled the digital economy and the promotion of smarter technologies.
The most recent and progressive of these initiatives is the Kenyan Digital Blueprint, launched in May 2019 at the Transform Africa Summit. The initiative demonstrates Kenya’s commitment to the Smart Africa project which aims to leverage technology to create a single digital market, targeting over 600 million people in 24 countries across the continent. It outlines an economic transformation into a sustainable digital ecosystem centred around smarter technologies and provides a conceptual framework for this development, categorised by five pillars: Digital government, digital business, infrastructure, innovation-driven entrepreneurship and digital skills and values.
The first pillar centres around the development of an interactive government portal, offering an open application programme interface, e-government services and the security of data and processes. This will simplify interactions between citizens and government; facilitating greater involvement of businesses and the general public in the decision-making process. Additionally, the pillar urges government to keep peace by ensuring food is safe to eat and the water and air are clean by keeping it accountable and allowing citizens to track its progress. This aligns with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) two and six, which call for an end to hunger and improved food security and nutrition, as well as clean water and sanitation for all people.
An example of digital government in Kenya is the Huduma Centre, a one-shop model for various government services, providing integrated technology platforms which aim to improve delivery of public services. This can be compared to the UAE’s DubaiNow platform which launched in 2015 and successfully enabled citizen-government relations.
The digital business pillar emphasises the development of a robust marketplace for digital trade, financial services and content. It highlights the need for affordable, efficient and safe payment systems, encouraging an improved legal framework and developed regional markets for cross border trading.
It calls for e-commerce to go beyond national borders and for Africa to integrate into a single digital market creating economies of scale.
The digital infrastructure element encompasses the development of reliable, affordable and secure broadband connectivity. This includes logistics infrastructure, appropriate and affordable devices, management of digital assets, payment systems and data centres.
The blueprint acknowledges the digital divide in Kenya and proposes an improvement generated by investment from private sector operators and government initiatives. This will include the National Optical Fibre Backbone Infrastructure (NOFBI), investment in broadband network infrastructure and initiatives by the Communications Authority. The mobile payment service, M-Pesa, previously contributed to narrowing the digital divide by changing people’s financial behaviour and lifting around 2% of Kenyan households out of poverty, as well as shifting sections of the workforce from agriculture into business. Next-generation networks and other smarter technologies and services should be Kenya’s new focus, in addition to investing in traditional infrastructure.
The innovation-driven entrepreneurship pillar is concerned with an ecosystem that supports homegrown firms in producing world class products and services. To achieve this, attention should be placed on funding for research, tax support for small companies, support of business models that leverage both open access and intellectual property systems, incubators and accelerators for innovation (Ministry of ICT ‘Whitebox’) and access to public procurement for innovation products.
Digital Skills and Values
The final pillar highlights the development of a digitally skilled workforce based on sound ethical practices and socio-cultural values. It emphasises the importance of artificial intelligence, robotics, coding in relevant tools, cybersecurity, Internet of Things and mobile app development.
Challenges associated with Kenya’s Blueprint
If enacted, the blueprint could accelerate growth of the Kenyan economy in the coming years. According to the World Bank, Kenya’s GDP is steadily increasing and set to grow to 5.8% in 2019 and 6% in 2020. The blueprint may lead to an increase in GDP; creating jobs, transforming the workforce, facilitating e-commerce, enabling new services and innovation across all sectors of the economy. Kenya’s blueprint could set a precedent for a new digital Africa and encourage wider cooperation between African nations. However, several challenges remain – the most important of which is implementation.
Kenya has previously published similar documents, many with same scope and focus as the 2019 blueprint but have fallen short due to a lack of successful implementation strategies. The Kenya National ICT Masterplan 2014-2017 also referenced smarter infrastructure, e-government and the promotion of ICT in industry and business. The notable difference between the previous document and the new initiative is the proposed implementation of an institutional framework known as the Digital Economy Secretariat and would significantly improve the likelihood of successful implementation. However, the secretariat must remain an unbiased body in its decision making and resource allocation – a characteristic which has been cited as the missing link in the quest for sustainable development – to avoid corruption, bad practices, an absence of accountability and lack of transparency.
To successfully implement the blueprint, the secretariat must allocate resources and funding in an effective and fair way. Focus should be applied to rural areas, not only on the development of urban centres. An example of this in practice is Ghana’s Poverty Reduction Strategy which included a range of stakeholders in the process of combating poverty. District Assemblies were set up at local government level to involve all society groups and ensure the fair distribution of resources. Germany have adopted an advanced model where different regions compete for resources by creating individual development plans. Kenya could succeed by replicating aspects of these examples of objective planning, since it can contribute to a higher rate of development success and transparency of resource allocation, providing a blueprint for other African countries to implement.
Companies operating in Kenya can promote growth of the digital economy by investing in existing and new infrastructure, working alongside regulators and providing accessible expertise to regulators and the Kenyan workforce. It is important to ensure that relationships with regulators maintain a level of clarity and accountability.