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Computing Centers Sprout in Rural KenyaPosted by: admin on Mon, 2010-11-01 14:06
The digital divide in Kenya is greatest between urban and rural areas. Efforts are underway to address this disparity by opening ICT hubs in every constituency across the country. In the process, thousands of aspiring entrepreneurs are getting business training.
By Dinfin Mulupi
For the majority of Kenyans without a computer, a combination of public and private efforts should bring the benefits of digital communication within reach – or at least within a few kilometers. When complete, these projects will have established hundreds of ICT centers across the country.
The installation of three fiber-optic cables in Kenya has paved the way for increased bandwidth speed, greater Internet penetration and slightly lowered internet costs. Yet statistics indicate that the majority of Kenyans still lack access to Internet services because of the high cost of computers. A recent Census report found that a paltry 3.6 percent of households have a computer. Access to ICT services is worse in rural areas, as cybercafés and computer ownership tend to be concentrated in Kenya’s cities.
To help reduce this regional disparity, the Kenya ICT Board launched a Digital Villages Project two years ago that seeks to open one computing center in each of the country’s 210 constituencies. So far, five pasha centers (pasha means “inform” in Swahili) have been opened during the pilot phase, according to Hellen Kirui, the Deputy Program Officer in charge of the project.
Training a Corps of Aspiring Small Business Owners
The implementation of the Digital Villages Project revolves around a robust entrepreneurship program. The government is training entrepreneurs in the basics of running a business. The ICT board contracted with 10 training firms to offer business and IT training to private entrepreneurs. Upon completion of the training, the participants are certified to run the pasha centers. According to Paul Kukubo, the ICT board’s CEO, more than 1,000 young adults have been trained so far.
These potential pasha entrepreneurs are invited to submit business plans to be evaluated by a financial institution and the ICT Board grants committee. Successful applicants will receive up to 1 million shillings in funding from the Digital Villages Revolving Fund to set up the centers. They will be required to repay the loans in three years.
The ICT Board will provide support to the pasha entrepreneurs in the first year of operation by conducting physical site visits.
Building a Computing Hub
The pasha centers will be equipped to serve all citizens, from students to farmers to business owners. “Each Digital Village will have a VSAT [a satellite communications system] base station and will be expected to form the basis for e-commerce in the country," said Dr. Bitange Ndemo, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication.
Each of the pasha centres will have between 10 and 20 computers connected to the Internet, fax machines and printers, among other equipment. The centers will provide a wide range of electronic services to the community including e-mail, e-learning and e-banking.
The pasha centers will also boost access to Kenya’s expanding “electronic government.” Citizens can access services and information by filing online applications for such necessities as identity cards and birth certificates. They can also submit electronic loan applications to government funds and file tax returns. They can also get access to other government departments through the e-government initiative. Being able to log on and access these services will save the public considerably, as they will no longer have to travel to Nairobi or other major towns to accomplish these tasks.
Ndemo notes that the project will affect online activities in other sectors such as agriculture, health, education and commerce. For instance, he says, medical practitioners in rural areas will be able to use e-learning to complete training in their remote locations instead of going to Nairobi.
Private Sector Participation
Last month, the Digital Villages project received support from IBM. The corporation sent a team of consultants from seven different countries to Kenya for a month long project to define the roll out strategy for the project. The team is also studying the strategic positioning of the Digital Villages as centers for rural empowerment and development. They are looking at policy frameworks for overall coordination and support to the continued evolution of the digital villages in Kenya.
To compliment the government’s initiative, mobile operators Safaricom, Telkom Kenya, Zain Kenya and Essar are developing plans to establish their own computing centers. They are doing so in order to meet their obligations under a 2009 law requiring them to pay 1 percent of their total revenue to the government. Instead of paying the levy, the government has asked them to set up five centers in each constituency. To date, Safaricom has rolled out 500 digital centers across the country. These centers will run on the company’s 3G network and serve as a platform for Safaricom to expand its market share in the data market.
Dinfin Mulupi is a business journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Picture Credits: Mark Steinlin, Flickr