Broadband In Kenya: Small Steps For Big Rewards

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The first broadband centre opened in Kenya earlier this year, but what effect will faster internet access have on a largely agricultural community, and how has the service been received so far?

There was a wave of excitement in Kangundo, a community of 34,000 people in the eastern province of Kenya, when the country’s first Pilot Pasha Centre (PPC) opened on July 28th. Pasha means ‘to inform’ in Swahili. Six PPCs are now open as part of the plan. The PPCs will illustrate how broadband technology can be brought to all parts of Kenya, in the hope of connecting local communities to each other and to services such as health, education, farming and business guidance that will enhance their livelihoods.

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Once connected with each other, the six PPCs will form a “laboratory test-bed” that will run for four months as part of a baseline study to monitor community usage and the demand for types of services. This baseline will be used to help the Kenya ICT Board determine the most appropriate business and operating models for Pasha entrepreneurs and their potential business partners, and also to test the portfolio of solutions that run in each centre.

Sites for the PPCs were selected on the basis of geographic distribution as a proof of concept to extend coverage and promote digital inclusion in rural communities. The World Bank has funded £64 million for the Regional Communications and Infrastructure Programme in Kenya. The goal is for Kenya to become a ‘showcase’ for Digital Villages — a vital component of the programme.

PPCs bring benefits for agriculture and a platform for competition and collaboration

Broadband technology is not a panacea for all social and environmental pains, but it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, and the PPCs will bring a wide range of anticipated benefits. In a country where 75 percent of the active workforce is employed in agriculture (with an estimated 1.3 million farmers), information and communications technology (ICT) will improve the lives of farmers and their families. The PPCs offer access to information on improved farming techniques, weather patterns and socio-economic conditions relative to specific localities, and enable farmers to improve the traceability of their produce.

Kenya is a net exporter of milk, with agriculture accounting for more than 50 percent of Kenya’s exports and 25 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), but neighbouring protectionist countries have stifled the industry. Now, thanks to ICT, farmers will be able to document their produce, enabling export and earning dairy farmers a fair wage for their efforts.

We have been working with the Kenya ICT Board for the last two years, and with other partners in the last six months, including telecommunications operator Telkom Kenya, equipment and systems integrator Copycat, and content providers including South Africa’s Learnthings, Kenya’s Afri-Afya, the UK’s National Health Service and the World Health Organisation. We believe the Pasha Centres, if implemented well, will facilitate the ‘haves’ and elevate the ‘have nots’. They will bring much needed internet access and skills development to both rural and urban communities in Kenya, and this will help transform the way this East African nation communicates and competes regionally and on an international scale.

The PPC project has been greatly enabled by the SEACOM and Teams submarine fibre optic cable projects, which recently helped connect Kenya and other East African countries to the rest of the continent — and indeed, the world. The benefits of these projects, combined with the EASSy cable scheduled to launch in 2010, will provide the catalyst for African consumers, businesses and governments to realise the benefits of connectivity. It will reduce broadband costs and, more importantly, provide a platform for Africans to collaborate and compete across the region and the world, enabling growth within urban and rural communities.