Nairobi — Improved internet connectivity in Kenya is accelerating economic growth, creating jobs and enhancing access to education, industry insiders say.
Online services accessible through computers and mobile phones have reduced transaction costs in various sectors and helped make citizens' lives easier, according to chairman of the Kenya Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Consumers Association Alex Gakuru.
"The public is able to download and fill out crucial documents such as police reports at a click of the mouse," he told Sabahi. "They are able to pay bills using their phones and can apply for jobs online. This means reduced travelling and expenditures."
According to the Communications Commission of Kenya 2011-2012 report released in October, internet usage via traditional computers grew by 19.2% to 7.7 million users, while mobile phone internet usage grew by 1.7% to 29.7 million users.
Although high access costs remain, Gakuru said, increasing internet penetration has improved Kenya's business, communications and education landscape.
Good connectivity has translated into lower advertising costs for businesses, as they are now able to reach more people online. Online interaction with consumers, who provide direct feedback to business owners, helps companies focus and better meet consumer demands, Gakuru said.
Internet access improves learning, creates jobs
James Ratemo, an online and multimedia sub-editor with the Daily Nation newspaper in Nairobi, said new internet-based technologies are making learning more interactive and interesting, which helps students grasp content more easily.
The government has promoted these emerging trends by implementing e-learning programmes in schools that help better manage and modernise Kenya's classrooms and teach students new technologies, he said.
Peter Agira, a math teacher at Nairobi's Rudolf Steiner Elementary School, says incorporating new technologies into the classroom has helped teachers at his school better administer assignments to their students and monitor their progress.
"Use of computers and tablets has incited interest in learning," he said. "The use of digital devices instead of chalkboards and exercise books has made learning for our students enjoyable, which has been instrumental in teaching complex arithmetic."
Kenya ICT Board chief executive officer Paul Kukubo said improved internet access has helped create about 1,000 jobs each month in the business process outsourcing sector.
He said the ICT Board launched a software exam in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University in the United States that aims to certify 500 Kenyan software developers annually. The programme aims to help professionals obtain the internationally recognised credentials needed to develop software applications in Kenya and create jobs.
"Kenya is developing quickly as a centre for software development, especially when it comes to mobile-based applications," Kukubo said. "The government is underpinning this with support in terms of setting up incubation centres where high potential start-ups can be supported."
Bridging the internet divide
Despite the positive outcomes that high-speed internet has brought to Kenya's economy, disparity in access remains a large obstacle, as the majority of internet users are located in Nairobi.
"Addressing the digital divide will help rural folks get connected," said Gakuru of the ICT Consumers Association. "This will help them participate in economic activities like finding markets for their agricultural products with much ease and at a reduced cost."
Mobile phones could help bridge the digital divide and provide internet access to more Kenyans, according to the Mobile Internet Usage Field Survey released in November by iHub, a Nairobi-based technology innovation centre.
However, this possibility is hampered by the higher cost of data-enabled handsets and data-plan costs that price out a lot of Kenyans.
Gakuru says the only way to address the digital divide is through proactive initiatives, such as by increasing taxes for telecommunications companies that provide service in cities and providing tax relief to operators that connect rural areas to the internet.
Journalist Ratemo said the government should suspend taxes on smart phones to make the devices more affordable so citizens in areas where fibre optic connection is not available are able to get connected via phone.
"If retail prices for smart phones are drastically reduced, it will mean that all Kenyan farmers, or even cobblers, will be able to own internet-enabled handsets, and therefore will be able [to look] for markets for their produce using their mobile phones," he said, adding that the government and mobile phone service providers should work together to lower data costs.
Kukubo said the government is completing the counties' connectivity initiative to ensure each of Kenya's 47 counties is adequately connected to the national fibre-optic cable. Completing the groundwork for that infrastructure will help increase connectivity throughout the country and bridge the divide, he said.