semeni - Kenya's nifty group SMS service repackaged

Aside from the unending debate of the M-PESA success in Kenya, it is interesting to note that there are other SMS based services that have been maturing into being equally innovative and relevant to the peculiar people of Kenya. I have been thinking through semeni; the group SMS service developed by  mobile planet and perhaps in conjunction with 'our Safaricom'. My chama (investment group) has used the service for at least two years now and I think it is a very convenient and practical service. Readers comments on my previous post on M-PESA ownership pointed at convenience to the populace being the significant factor for M-PESA's success. I should say then that if convenience were the only factor for the phenomenal success, then semeni (or 184 as known within my chama) should be equally successful in a few more months or years from now.

The service allows users to broadcast an SMS text to multiple selected friends, family members, co-workers and so on within the Safaricom network for only 10/- per broadcast. The same should be possible as standard features of some mobile phone handsets which an individual can set up on their own phone. Semeni takes the otherwise basic feature further by making it platform (handset) indipendent to begin with - embracing the now hype cloud computing concept. The service then goes ahead to offer individuals a relatively simple and common interface to create, modify and delete groups. Administrative features include inviting new members and 'transferring leadership'. For individual members, features include creating their nick names specific to each group they belong to, going offline - to stop receiving group messages temporarily, and voluntarily leaving a group.  The service goes ahead to act as an archive of messages sent through the group - a cool feature for those of us who are perpetually pruning the inbox of our low capacity handsets.

What makes this service a little more ready for the masses as 2009 comes to a close is the added combination of both an SMS and a web based user interface. The group and individual membership management features are accessible through either the SMS or the Web based mode. The repackaged service also scales up to allow individual membership of more than one group by adding a extra digit after the 184 code. The new groups are coded 184X  (where X is 1-9,0) to uniquely identify a maximum of 10 groups that an individual can theoritically belong to. As such I could have the number 1841 assigned to my estate 'jirani mwema' group, 1842 to my Bible study group, 1843 to my chama, 1844 to my sibblings and so on.

Perhaps it is not the basic feature of broadcasting SMS texts to selected groups of friends and family members at reduced costs that makes semeni a ground breaking service for Kenyans. It is rather the potential that such a service carries of competing at the same level as facebook, twitter and other social network services heavily used in Kenya. As a social media platform, semeni has this unique advantage of starting from the trusted, established  and known social networks inherent in the existing social patterns of Kenyans. It will definitely not surprise many to have semeni offer more social media-like services on its web based interface. The service' apparent approach of offerring a simple and deliberately reduced feature set might be a plus if the phenomenal growth of twitter with its reduced feature set is to go by.

On the downside the service currently appears to be one more item in Safaricom's arsenal to indefinitely lock its 14 million plus subscribers within its arguably expensive network. The service also has yet to allow its users to send messages for free or at normal network rates from its web-based platform. Of greater concern is that the service seems not to be beneffitting much from Safaricom's phenomenal marketting bugdet as yet.

The semeni support center would be a good place to start for those who want to know more about how the service works.

M-PESA is not a Kenyan Innovation

Many Kenyans still believe that 'their' Safaricom owns the patents to the M-PESA innovation. Some Kenyans even claim that Safaricom hijacked their idea and developed it into M-PESA - a court case was once reported on this. The reality being that the system  was 'developed' by Sagentia on behalf of Vodafone, it goes without saying that the corresponding intellectual property (IP) does not belong to Safaricom. That is also not to forget that Kenya has enough software development capacity to build such a system on a robust platform.

Safaricom is paying patent fees to Vodafone just like any other network operator who will wish to use the money transfer platform. It might help for Michael Joseph to clarify if any benefits accrue to himself or others in Safaricom specifically for accepting to be the test platform for "Vodafone's innovation". Such a clarification should of course address the opportunity cost of a more direct contribution to Kenya's knowledge economy through the apparently foregone IP ownership.

I would like to suggest that if for any other reason M-PESA does not succeed in other markets outside Kenya, it will be because the M-PESA is merely a Kenyan innovation, whose success is a direct derivative of  Kenya's patriotism. As such the innovation's success may not be replicated where the corresponding patriotic emotion is inexistent.

Consider the patriotism displayed in the oversubscription of the Safaricom IPO of 2008. Consider the fanatical self imposed network (Safaricom) lock-in of over 14 million Kenyans. Then you might start understanding the success of M-PESA in Kenya. Many Kenyans found M-PESA compelling merely because it was supposed to be a 'Kenyan Invention'. Indeed the M-PESA success story may not be complete without mentioning the sense of belonging and patriotism of Kenyans as an aftermath of 2007/8 election crisis.


Had the 5+ Millions of M-PESA users initially learnt some of the facts in Olga Morawczynski's
article - What you don't know about M-PESA, the service might as well have been struggling as is the case with the Vodacom's attempt in Tanzania. Consider the question - why are ZAP and YuCash - alternatives to MPESA not yet success stories? In my opinion, the technological platform could have been developed by anyone else - including our own software developers. The business processes addressing the socio-economic context could only have come from the Kenyan populace - regardless of who eventually incorporated them into the software.    

I am sure at some point in history, the social scientists will have something to say about the role of Kenya's social-political crisis of 2007 and 2008 in the M-PESA success story.

So how do I know an IT practitioner in Kenya

The other day Dr. Bitange Ndemo - who I really respect announced that ICDL training will be used as some kind of benchmark for determining whether one is computer literate. That seems to me a very useful move for the ICT industry. It definitely very useful for the Kenya chapter of ICDL. Skeptics will say Dr. Ndemo was 'enticed' to make the public pronouncement. Let us now watch to see how the growing computer training industry responds to the implied endorsement - no more questionable computer training certificates? Whatever the case, the trend should make life easier for those IT practitioners in the area of IT service support. It should be easier to tell a fellow employee to read their ICDL notes when they ask for support to prepare some powerpoint presentation.

The next thing Dr. Ndemo should scout for is the benchmark for one to be safely called an IT expert. Some of the ladies and gentlement we call IT practitioners have the perhaps outdated IMIS diploma, ACE etc. Others have MCSE, MCP, CCNA, Oracle Administrators which may not have been renewed since the first vendor curiculum was published. Then there is the educated lot who undertook went through a formal degree such as BSC Computer Science, BBIT, BSC in IT, BSC in Software Engineering and others. Others did BSC in electronic engineering, BSC in Maths and seem to have a claim to the title 'IT expert'.

It seems difficult to establish who really is the expert in Kenya. Perhaps they all are. Perhaps Dr. Ndemo should make a pronouncement. Perhaps they should all subscribe to a body that would vet them by some standards. The question of what the Computer Society of Kenya (CSK) means to this debate seems difficult - especially when my colleague says CSK is only a one man show.

This IT profession surely feels like an interesting one. Consider the question of which of the above qualifications earns the right to scale up the corporate ICT ladder. Lastly, should the head of the IT function be the IT manager, ICT managemer, IS manager, Data Manager or should they carry the more glamorous Chief Information Officer title?  Now we need an IT consultant to determine the meaning of these titles in our esteemed organisations.

Kenya's Strategic Plan for Health Information Systems

Kenya has a brand new Strategic Plan for Health Information Systems (HIS) covering the period 2009 to 2014. The new strategic plan also brings along a HIS policy to guide its implementation. The two documents attempt to deliberately address the aspirations of the National Health Strategic Plan II , the Health Sector Monitoring and Evaluation Framework and the country's Vision 2030. The documents were prepared with the technical and financial support from the Health Metrics Network (HMN) and UK's Department for International Development (DfID). Click here to access the two documents on Google Docs



Notably, among government dependent services, the health sector has been at the fore front adopting Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for improved service delivery to Kenyans. The progressiveness on the part of the health sector may be appreciated as a result of good leadership within the government. The same might also be dismissed as a mere side effect of immense donor interest especially with respect to HIV and AIDS. The extreme pessimist might dismiss the same as yet another fantastic set of paperwork that the government produces whose theory will not really be actualized in practice. The extreme pessimist will not be helped to note that whereas there is a very thin line between HIS and eHealth, another set of similar documents on the national eHealth Strategy are being finalised by a different department of the two Ministries of Health.


The strategic plan for HIS has a vision of making Kenya “a centre of excellence for quality health and health related data and information for use by all”. One of the strategic objectives in the document which should interest the local ICT industry is for 'Strengthening use and application of information and communication technology, in data management' . Cited strategies for this include enhancing data management functions with hardware and software, developing an integrated web-enabled database system, support for data flow (data connectivity), systems maintenance, data security, and developing capacity of ICT personnel. Given the plan's budget of Ksh. 1.9 billion, the above strategies if implemented will surely have a spill over effect of further nourishing the country's fledgeling ICT industry.


The plan aims to directly create jobs for 4,310 more health records and information personnel, 227 ICT officers and 221 statisticians. As meagre as these numbers may look, this should bring a little hope to the disillusioned Kenyan youth studying ICT related degree and diploma courses. Perhaps greater economic impacts will be felt in the ICT industry if affirmative action is enforced to more directly favour local entrepreneurs. Such a protectionist approach will yield even better results in the software industry if local expertise, based on widely tested, global community supported open source approaches, can be developed and tapped. Such an approach will also compare better to acquiring turnkey or off-the-shelf solutions that have dependencies on foreign software vendors with expensive licensing models.


Although it might sound fair enough for the health sector to insist that all they want is a working ICT infrastructure (software and hardware) in pursuit of the HIS strategy, it might help to look beyond an optimal solution for the short term. To gradually build capacity of the local software industry with a reasonable level of tolerance will provide optimal long term solutions in terms of Sustainability, Return On Investment (ROI to the country's economy) and the long term Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). Moreover such an approach should eventually improve the country's foreign exchange situation by exporting human resources and intellectual property developed throughout HIS implementation. The approach will also be in line with the ICT board's vision of making Kenya a top ten global ICT hub.


Lastly, of concern is the apparently dismal engagement of the ICT fraternity in developing the HIS strategic plan. Stronger participation of the ICT board, local solution providers, and associations of ICT practitioners in such an ICT related domain is called for in the future. Such involvement of the domain experts will help to address the economic dimension which exists in the bigger picture of the country's vision 2030.

Dining with your predator – the essence development dynamics

It has been said, quite often that there is by far more talk about national paperwork on everything development than actual execution of development agenda in Kenya. Such paperwork will be called national strategy, national policy, national plan of operations, national assessment, national report and everything else national that can be put on paper. Of course developing the paperwork requires consensus building, which in turn requires government officers, bi lateral partners, UN bodies, solution vendors among other stakeholders to deliberate and dine in exotic hotels.

The stakeholder meetings will be called workshops, seminars, conferences, trainings, and any other name that represents a group of privileged people who do not normally meet at their routine work places to say the same things over and over again. Needless to say, participants of such meetings also have to draw a handsome allowance to facilitate the temporary displacement from their normal work station. The stakeholders will also get a chance to share the best and worst practices across their industry while consolidating positions in exclusive clubs of globe trotting workers - increasing their tallies in the frequency tables of global workshop participants.

Now, before you get me wrong, putting our paperwork right is always important and the consensus building meetings are indeed useful. The issue that our government officials of integrity should beware of though is the need to answer a question of - Which of the stakeholders / participants is really genuine? It is also the question of who else is seeking to contribute fairly in the execution of your most well thought, noble development agenda.

Is it the multi-lateral partners?
 
Common wisdom has it that that UN systems are really just inefficient bureaucracies of first class world citizens. The elite bodies and their exclusive clubs inevitably have armies of globe-trotting elitists enjoying tax contributions from member countries. Needless to say these elite members themselves hardly feel the burden of heavy taxation regimes like that of Kenya. Enjoying a handsome, untaxed pay is not bad after all for the well connected, hard working elite. However beware of the less genuine UN elite who will procure and connive with a vendor or a shrewd consultant to drive the weirdest of agendas for a host country.

Is it the bi-lateral partners
 
Bigger countries will always want to look like they are taking care of their smaller sisters in the developing world. The US in the name of USAID, PEPFAR, CDC or whichever other vehicle fronted as a Donor agency are set up to look after America's own interests. It is easy to be flattered, that we have a big brother offering a hand of support. Watch closely and you might see that their most genuine interests will boil down to some economic value to the big brother. It may not matter whether it is the Chinese – Kenya partnership, Japan and JICA, UK and DfID. They are innocently ensuring that some modern day imperialism is propagated to the future. When the spotlight reaches the real agenda they will say it is globalisation and we shall nod our heads in helpless concurrence. Such predatory patterns might be more obscure where intellectual property such as research data, software licences and royalties are at stake. Moreover, beware of paying too much attention to some under skilled or unprofessional individuals off-loaded to Africa with strange sounding titles such as Technical Advisers.

Is it the solution vendors?
 
Whether it is the software company representative, the training solutions provider, the hotel salesman, the travel company executive or the storage hardware provider ranting away, they remain nothing else but businessmen. No matter how elegant they sound about the pertinent issues, all they want is some revenue stream from your development agenda. The more perpetual the revenue stream looks for them the better of course. Wanting to do business with the government is not necessarily bad – as government should not really be the solutions provider to its people. However beware of those predators who will only see a perpetual revenue stream for their business, whether or not it helps you efficiently deliver on your noble mandate of actualizing your tax financed development projects. Furthermore beware of interesting deals, recently baptised Public, Private Sector Partnerships – PPP. No matter how innocently you look at them, for graft ridden developing economies like Kenya, you need to be an angel to execute a fraud free PPP initiative.

Or is it yourself?
 
And lastly for the most statistically represented predator, ourselves – you and I. Have you ever prioritised the country's development agenda higher than your new investment project, your MBA, your house under construction or your junior's school fees? I need not say more about these as genuine stakeholders – lest I get arrested for presenting white lies.

 Enjoy the week!

Adopting OpenMRS: A kick start to Kenya's software industry?

Let me first apologies to the faithful readers who have advised to limit the length of posts. I am still learning the art of summary, so please allow the bad old ways for now.


Donor interest


Kenya's response to HIV and AIDS has over the last decade become a thriving industry in itself. The sustained donor interest and flow of funds to the sector has remained an area of curiosity to many onlookers. A growing school of thought exists; curious why the not-so-meagre funding should not go to fighting Malaria and other diseases with higher mortality rates than AIDS. The donor politics aside, there is a real interest among the so called development partners to finance implementation of Electronic Medical Records (EMR) Systems. Their intention, ostensibly so, is to assist in managing administration of Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART) among people living with HIV in Kenyan health facilities. The more observant ICT strategist or development minded entrepreneur will hear of a distinct and rare opportunity amidst the noise – a launching pad for a vibrant software industry in Kenya.


Competitive Advantage for ICT in Kenya


ICT and software industry in particular is one of the remaining escape routes that Kenya has, to liberate its people from their economic and social quagmire. Perhaps one only needs to invoke the stereotypical example of the MPESA success to dare the common pessimistic to shrug off the defeatist 'that is too ambitious' attitude. A strategic adoption of the OpenMRS health information system currently implemented by AMPATH at the Moi University Referral and Training Hospital and at the Millenium Villages Project seems a realistic launching pad for a vibrant software industry in Kenya.


Kenya has in the recent past built vast human resource base around ICT ranging from the deeply engaged software developers, systems administrators, trainers and ICT managers. You only need to look around your immediate circle to find a relative or a friend who has undergone some IT related diploma or degree level training. We need not arrange an economic management seminar with Michael Porter to learn that a nation can develop competitive advantages around the skills of its people. Besides in our knowledge economy, traditional factors of production such as land and capital are belittled by the very knowledge-base of a people.


An unencumbered software industry


A vibrant software industry will exist only where there is a relevant skilled and motivated human resource base. The challenge however remains that the most highly talented and committed ICT practitioners become increasingly frustrated by an ever nagging glass ceiling – the licensing and intellectual property demands of the foreign software giants. Any efforts to turn Kenya into a net producer of software will be frustrated as long as the software developer's successes must be attributed financially to some global software monopoly – call it Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, IBM or Google - whichever.


Apart from a financial 'embargoes' and 'dependencies' on Kenyans derived from ownership of proprietary software, the Software industry continues to suffer from a suppression of creativity. If globalization pays for creative economic value, then globalization tells you that you are too poor to be creative, then globalization has condemned you to poverty. A skilled and talented software developer in Kenya cannot be creative enough for really significant economic value if they cannot tinker with their software application's database back-end (eg. Microsoft SQL server, Microsoft Access and Oracle databases).


Currently, in most cases the talented developer may not necessarily need to tinker with the database or operating system back-end. They may only need a reassurance that the software product they are banking their livelihood on will not break helplessly due to a bug or hidden deficiency in the back-end controlled by Microsoft or any other monopolistic manufacturer. The reassurance only, that in a bad case scenario they can tweak the underlying platform themselves is liberating to the would be Kenyan software millionaire. Indeed many back end environments in computers and servers are bulky with unnecessary features for a vast majority of consumers in the developing world. The software implementer will wish to have the ability to cut down on unnecessary functionalities offered in the standard back end or operating system environment. Such reassurance and empowerment in the IT world only comes in the from adherence to the OpenSource software philosophy.


Why OpenSource and OpenMRS?


OpenSource software philosophy encourages ICT specialists to acquire install and use software with licences that do not demand payment for normal use. The licensing structures are such that the software is essentially owned and supported by a global community of self driven ICT specialists and users. Indeed the manufacturer or licensing company may generate revenue from more specialised adaptation of the software where 'more insider' support, maintenance and tweaking are required. For software development entities who feel a need to access and tweak the software themselves, the source code for such software is publicly accessible through on-line download or other low cost distribution channels.


Indeed the larger proportion of implementation cost for open source software is largely human capacity building. A structured and elaborate capacity building for software developers and implementers is about all that is required for a large scale adoption of EMR systems based on OpenMRS in Kenya. Of course that should go with a little investment in the not-yet-common foundations of good governance and management practices. Such support could be rendered through some form of facilitating agency; a public or private sector entity or even the donor agency themselves. A well managed facilitating agency should in the long run facilitate export of OpenMRS implementation and support services to the rest of the countries


With development partners wishing to mitigate their risks of project failure, they will rarely go wrong with a larger portion of their investment going into human capacity building. Donor support for adoption of OpenMRS and other OpenSource software projects should offer them a significantly less risk of failure since it is rare to go wrong on human capacity building; the single largest cost component of implementing an OpenSource system. The apparent cost of such capacity building of ICT specialists and health facility staff may be rendered insignificant compared to the opportunity cost of developing or adopting systems based on proprietary technologies; perpetually paying licences and support fees to foreign companies and experts.


Apart from the OpenSource nature of OpenMRS, it has other useful strengths, among them the following:-

  1. OpenMRS participated in Google Summer of Code of 2007 and 2008 hence benefits globally from inputs of highly talented and skilled programmers and their mentors
  2. OpenMRS has support from a global community with implementations cutting accross continents hence has easily addressing global standards such as HL7
  3. OpenMRS has been embraced by the software development community for extended functionalities eg. a)teaming up with Pentaho the data mining and busines intelligence specialist and b) the development of a Google Android application for medical diagnostices using phones based on OpenMRS - to name a few
  4. OpenMRS functionality is not limited to HIV related health conditions see abstract on OpenMRS as a key Malaria intervention
  5. In early 2009, OpenMRS was ranked by Kenya's NASCOP as one of the top three EMR systems being used in Kenya among IQCare and Fuchia which are locked in to Microsoft proprietary technologies and imply payment of expensive Microsoft Licence fees for every extra user or installation. (Note that the reliability of the ranking criteria aside, large scale adoption of such alternative systems as IQcare does not guarantee meaningful opportunities to Kenya job seekers as demonstrated where software development jobs are fashioned for Indian counterparts to 'develop solutions for the developing world').

In conclusion, it seems impossible to over-do capacity building among software developers, implementers and entrepreneurs to adapt OpenMRS for public, private and mission hospitals in Kenya that do not have EMR systems. That may be the little investment that development partners in the HIV and AIDS sector need to make in Kenya to address their core interests and whose secondary effects to a fledgling software industry might just be phenomenal.

CYBER-LAWYERS REQUIRED FOR KENYA'S KNOWLEDGE ECONOMY

This week I have had several chats with some of my learned friends about the Communication (Amendment) Act 2008. I am convinced that there are still major gaps or areas of improvement if we are to have a conducive legal environment for the growth of a knowledge economy. Perhaps the biggest gap is the basic one of awareness among law enforcers, advocates, judges, prosecutors and the public in general.

Many of my learned friends are either themselves ignorant of the existence of the law or are simply skeptical that it is not a practical law. Various sections of the law seem simply Utopian to the some of the lawyers. Some lawyers merely dismiss it as a law doomed to automatically contradict other existing laws. With the lawyers themselves skeptical about our cyber-laws the public confidence on economic activity through the web and other electronic platforms is seriously undermined.

The communication amendment act having already been passed and signed, there are at least two more bills outstanding with the ministry of ICT that will further enhance our knowledge economy - The Freedom Of Information (FOI) bill and the Data Protection Bill. There is need for greater professional participation in the development of these bills especially among legal fraternity and the IT industry. It might also help a great deal for the proposed bills to be presented for discussion in our universities' legal, business, media and information technology schools. Apart from enriching the contents of the bills, such presentations will double up to achieve the much needed publicity and advocacy among the youth who are ultimately driving the knowledge economy.

In general, there seems to be a dire need to interest many more lawyers on ICT and knowledge management disciplines. Perhaps this needs to be addressed by enhancing the our university law offerings or through continuing education for the already learned friends. Some of our universities may already be sensing this need, which may have necessitated Anthony Okulo's presentation - Development of a legal framework for e-commerce in Kenya during the Strathmore University's 9th ICT seminar (September 2008)

TIME FOR KENYANS TO LET GO - OF THE CHERISHED WAN

With the anticipated landing of various undersea fiber optic cables at our coast, there is bound to be a radical transformation of the average corporate IT infrastructure. Many of the of larger regionally diversified organizations in Kenya have over the years invested heavily in Wide Area Network (WAN) equipment. The investments in hardware havealso gone along with expensive bandwidth provision contracts. This has largely been in pursuit of reliable data connectivity across their organization's branches.

Government parastatals form a bulk of such organizations in addition to banks, and several of the larger local companies. Also included among the soon-to-be affected are multinational companies, international NGOs and intergovernmental agencies who have elaborate equipment setups and contracts based on the ageing premise that data connectivity in the country is slow, expensive and unreliable.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the above organizations will very soon find themselves having to choose between clinging on to their costly traditional WAN infrastructure or moving on to more cost effective Virtual Private Network (VPN) arrangements. VPN solutions are private to the corporate but essentially running on the public internet infrastructure. Although VPNs have been in the industry for a while, they are a relatively more modern approach to data connectivity compared to the traditional WAN concept. The more unfortunate of these organizations are currently trapped in restrictive vendor lock-in contracts, to expensive proprietary WAN solutions.

The older WAN concept has remained popular for as long as the local public internet services have been considered not feasible for the most basic business communications. The landing of undersea fiber cable infrastructure such as that of SEACOM, and TEAMS in Mombasa is anticipated to change the equation all together. The under sea infrastrature will bring down the cost of public internet drastically while significantly improving Kenyan internet user experiences in terms of speed and reliability.

With attributes such as cheap, fast and reliable becoming a reality for public internet it will become inevitable for organizations to re-design their existing corporate data connectivity solutions. All they need to explore are additional features to overlay the public internet connections such as corporate security, network policy management and scalability for their business needs. Lucky enough there already exist cost effective VPN solutions. A VPN solution can be designed to efficiently address the extra corporate concerns while making the traditional WAN solution look like a ridiculous rip-off all together.

Cost reductions will be realized largely in the form of reduced recurrent bandwidth costs. Some of the VPN solutions offered by our competing telecoms require little or negligible initial capital outlays. In some arrangements, the required networking equipment is offered for free or at a negligible cost, requiring the corporate customer to only pay for the data services consumed.

Equipment vendors including Cisco have even more flexible solutions. The vendors provide minimal set of equipment to be installed at the head offices. The specialized VPN equipment is used to centrally manage security and policy concerns for the connected employee's computer regardless of their location and means of connection. This is where employee reserves their freedom to use an internet connection service of their choice - providing they have the VPN software installed on their computer. For the Cisco hardware solution, the VPN software is free to download on their website.

The completion and light up of the National Optic Fiber Backbone Infrastructure (NOFBI) across the country funded by Kenyan Tax Payers will make the situation even rosier for state corporations and government departments. This is especially if they are given preferential rates. The new terrestrial infrastructure whose contractors are Sagem, Huawei and ZTE is at advanced stages of implementation and the government recently advertised a tender for its maintenance.

With reduced connectivity rates, institutions will only need to invest in cost effective VPN solutions to piggy-back on the national infrastructure. This should free up more monies previously allocated to corporate IT infrastructure development and maintenance. Such savings may be reallocated for use in other strategic investments such as developing a human capital base around software development and IT security services. The resulting increased access to electronic information will also give rise to advancement of our budding knowledge economy.

THE "SECRET CYBER-LAW" OF KENYA - Part 1

One of the best achievements of Kenya's current (nineth) parliament was passing the Kenya Communications (Amendment) Act 2008 [download pdf]. Indeed to those watching the developments in the local IT landscape, the law's gazettement on 2nd January was one of the the best new year gifts for 2009. The country became the sixth African country after Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, South Africa and Mauritius to enact a law addressing business in the cyber-space. Enactments of these laws are deliberate efforts by the governments to create a conducive legal environment fostering growth of the local knowledge economy.

As unfortunate as it would be, the great story of a new beginning for the ICT sector went largely unnoticed. The new law curiously carries a section or two that traditional Kenyan media did not like. Members of the fourth estate had started waging war against the new act as early as 2007 before it was tabled to parliament. So distructive was the media's campaign against the law it is still unfortunately referred to as the 'media bill'. One wonders why there was little or no deliberate effort by the Kenya ICT Board and ICT industry's lobby groups to popularize the various positive aspects of the law. The law continues to be mis-represented and the cyber-law issues remain 'a secret'.

In her paper 'Legal and Regulatory Frameworks for the Knowledge Economy', Angeline Vere of Africa's Association of Communication Lawyers outlines 10 legal issues of concern for creating an enabling environment for the knowledge economy through cyber-legislation
  1. Contract validation and the legality of electronic transactions
  2. E-signatures and Authentication
  3. Admissibility and evidential weight of e-communication
  4. Consumer protection
  5. Intellectual property rights
  6. Data protection and privacy
  7. Liability and dispute settlement
  8. E-jurisdiction
  9. E-taxation
  10. Cybercrime
In this post I shall attempt to discuss how the act addresses two of the above concerns - leaving the rest for a later post.

Admissibility and Evidential weight of e-communication

The new law guarantees legal recognition of electronic records. It assigns information in electronic form equal legal status as information in any other written form. The law defines electronic form, with reference to information, as any "information generated, sent, received or stored in magnetic, optical, computer memory, microfilm or similar device;"

With this law, the fact that information is in electronic form shall not be the sole reason the information cannot be admitted in court - it shall be given due evidential weight. The law goes further to recognize email messages by specifying that "a declaration of will or other statement shall not be denied legal effect ... solely on the ground that it is in the form of an electronic message"

Implementing this law means that the Kenya government, its agencies, and other corporates can confidently invest in efficient and electronically flexible knowledge management systems for improved communication, collaboration and general content management. Organizations and the public in general will benefit from a reduced emphasis on traditional paper based systems which are more draining on our scarce resources (including financial, space, time, the natural environment etc). Our traditional paper based information systems have also been seen to promote bureaucracy and corruption.

E-Signatures and Authentication

The law defines “electronic signature” as data in electronic form affixed to or logically associated with other electronic data which serve as a method of authentication. It specifies the criteria to be met if a signature is to be valid. Criteria for reliable advanced electronic signatures are also spelled out to make use of advanced digital certification and cryptographic technologies. This allows for advanced categories of signatures to be afforded greater legal weight due to their presumption of greater reliability and trustworthiness.

The Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) is in this law empowered to facilitate and regulate electronic certification services by issuing licenses to prospective certification service providers (defined as an entity or a legal or a natural person who issues certificates or provides other services related to electronic signatures).

The law creates an opportunity for local entrepreneurs (and foreign service providers) to go into provision of digital signatures and certification. This will bring such services closer to Kenyan corporates and consumers who have previously had to services from European and North American providers amidst legal and logistical hardship. In the advent of globalization, services of such local companies should be recognizable by any foreign authority whose cyber laws carry the spirit of UNCITRAL's convention on electronic signatures [download pdf].

Addressing the above issues through a the legal framework should spur more growth in the ICT industry in Kenya. This anticipated growth will be boosted further by the government's investment in making data connectivity more affordable through inland and undersea fiber optic cable initiatives.

A KNOWLEDGE ECONOMY FOR KENYA - LET SLEEPING DOGS LIE ..

Many of us Kenyans are yet to come to terms with our increasing addiction to online social networking (mostly facebook for now). It is even more interesting to see how many more local web pages within such social sites are popping up. More relevant events (online or otherwise), groups, blogs and community forums are being set up by the day for the most typical Kenyan contexts. Perhaps this is a little of what the Kenya ICT Board seems to be evangelizing - local content. With phenomena like Google Maps, FaceBook and a growing catalog of Kenyan blogs, we can certainly associate with the information age more closely than five years ago.

Gone are the times when local content was limited to struggling web portals run by internet service providers (ISPs) - the likes of Kenyaweb, and African online, etc. Let us leave the fate of the traditional ISPs in the advent of Mobile phone operators, Undersea cables and the National Optical Fiber Backbone Infrastructure (NOFBI)for another day. The story should get juicier when we considering our diversification strategies of our competing mobile networks into broadband data services.

Of course it would be incomplete not to mention the domination of Nation Media and The East African standard's news websites on Google searches for Kenyan content. Those were the only places to consider for the then strange concept of online advertisement. They still pretty much remain the first considerations for the more traditional, 'wanna be IT savvy' PR/Marketing manager using the so called 'web banners'. Times seem to have changed and there is no need guessing who is now subcontracting Google for their more effective Google Ads business model - the media houses themselves.

Consider me alarmist but I am astonished at the thought of the impending dominance of Google in Kenya's information (media) industry. The smallest subset of Googles products eg. Base, Check Out, Maps, Adsence, Blogspot/Blogger feels like its yet another western imperialism strategy on of our economy. In case the point is not clear yet, consider the increasing impact of Google Search, YouTube, Gmail on our information consumption patterns. If there is no worry about Google, then consider the thought that Facebook is now a mainstream means of communication for many young Kenyans. The implied possibilities in terms of advertisement revenues for these young American multinationals are huge.

Of course these new players area already claiming a share of the our conventional media firm's revenue streams. More disturbing though is the scary thought of who is getting to own the intellectual property rights on the stuff that the three million or so internet users in Kenya are feeding onto Google Maps, Facebook, Twitter, Wikimapia, etc.

Do not get me wrong - all is not lost with all these effects of globalization. A few ideas worth consideration to ride the seemingly unstoppable wave include :-
  1. Spruce up our CVs and seek out for 'plum jobs' arising from the likes of Google setting camp in the country. Of course this is in pursuit of the beautiful dream of owning a piece of the multinational through some Employee Share Ownership Plan (ESOP).
  2. Design the ultimate 'killer-software' around our peculiar habits that will whet Google's appetite for a buy-out of 'local knowledge'.
  3. Preposition our local firms for joint ventures and partnerships in symbiotic relationships with the mighty multinationals - financial muscle vs local knowledge and consumer (mis)understanding.
  4. The other idea in your mind right now - please share!