Friday, January 11, 2008

Why don’t we have faith in local web hosting?

Dennis Wambugu is a very disappointed man. He is disappointed because Kenyans do not seem to host most of their websites at the local Internet Service Provider (ISP).

Wambugu, who heads Get2Net, a local ISP, feels that too many Kenyan websites are hosted abroad yet the same services can be provided locally. He argues that Kenyan businesses and organizations need to make deliberate efforts to support the local industry, like most South African entities do.

Wambugu vented his frustrations when questioned whether Get2net would have the capacity to host a website and guarantee that it will always be accessible.

While he had a right to be frustrated at the lack of faith in local web hosting, the local ISPs have left a lot to be desired, in their support and back up of client’s content. The costs are also inhibitive.

Sample this: charges shs 1,300 ($20) annually to host a site while a local ISP charges at least shs 24,000 ($ 370) to host the same site annually.

But Wambugu defends the local costs saying that can afford to charge shs 1,300 because they have a million sites to host. This means that the company can make $ 20 million from hosting a million sites annually.

Compared to local companies, he says that the higher the number of clients hosting locally, the lesser the charges. This is because companies can invest in better servers and expect to recoup the costs within the year.

But people wonder; why spend a lot of money hosting locally while a minimal cost will give massive space abroad. The answer lies in acts of patriotism.

Most South African companies take pride in having a website and hosting it locally. Then they ensure that they demonstrate their proudly South African sign. Whether it is a local or regional corporation, they are hosted locally and have South Africa’s country code (

In this respect, the issue of cost of hosting seems to lack meaning because we have Kenyan corporations hosting abroad, yet they have the money to host locally.

However, some people hosting abroad speak of lack of reliability and lack of proper support by Kenyan ISPs as the reason they host abroad. For instance, if there is power black out and the building has no generator, then the site will not be accessible.

With hosting companies abroad, they seldom have problems of power failure and when they do, there is always back up. Meaning that businesses progress and there is no information/ content.

But Wambugu defends this position arguing that most ISPs in Nairobi are located in modern buildings with powerful generators, making sure that client support is available 24 hours a day.

Besides, Wambugu agues that most ISPs mirror their server contents with other off shore servers in Australia, US, Canada and UK. This way, the local ISP ensures the websites are available all the time.

The whole hosting debate could be demystified if the government works out a program for educating the public on the amount of money and time it takes to access a site which is hosted abroad.

This will lead to more debate about development of local content and hosting capacity within the district level. Reliable country wide connectivity will allow establishment of ISPs within the local level.

For instance, if a youth group starts up an ISP at the district level and approaches local businesses and government authorities, they can work out a way to host the sites at minimal fees depending on the sites.

This will offer more employment opportunities at the local level and more people can appreciate the essence of developing quality websites.

Connectivity has been a thorny issue and with the promise of the sub marine optic fibre link becoming real, the costs of connectivity will come down. There are also two satellites in orbit –NIGCOMSAT and RASCOMstar, which are bound to improve Africa’s space segment.

Though the two geostationary communications satellites will face challenges of pricing and technical support, they may achieve the objective of lowering cost of bandwidth within the other satellites beaming to Africa.

The cost of bandwidth and support aside, Kenya needs to find a way to support local initiatives and help grow the local industry.

For instance, Safaricom limited made its shs 17 Billion profit out of local calls, not international calls. Indeed, the international calls are mainly made using Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP), available in most cyber cafés.

Kenya needs to remain competitive efficiently and quickly. There is so much potential but there must be deliberate effort to support one another.

That feeling of patriotism must be promoted through marketing by the Kenya ICT Board. But patriotism alone is not going to improve our country’s technical abilities. There needs to be investments by local ICT industry so that services can match those offered abroad.

Local ISPs need to invest in state-of-the-art data centres comprising ultra high-quality connectivity, networking gear, climate control, and security and power systems. Hosting facilities need to be monitored 24/7/365 state-of-the-art network operations centre and if a problem arises, the technical team must be able to help!

To attract more websites, host companies need to have connectivity from several leading Internet hosts, both International and local Kenyan backbone internet providers.

Regarding connectivity, the ISP must be in a position to achieve 99% network uptime for customers based in Kenya. Prices must be competitive and must be in a position to customize websites depending on the customers hosting requirements.

With these developments, Kenyans will have more faith in local web hosting and possibly Kenyan companies can host larger corporation websites as well as upcoming businesses.

Lopsided priorities: the Digital Villages project

Martin Kimani was very amused when an aspiring parliamentarian, suggested that he would ensure there is a digital village in Molo.

Kimani did not understand how the villagers in his Tombo village could get to understand and appreciate technology yet they do not even have access to clean water and most of them do not have jobs.

As a graduate, it is manifest that Kimani does not see the role of the digital villages because the government or the concerned Civil Society Organizations had not done enough to popularize the project.

For Kimani, the question was simple; do we have to begin as a digital village before we can become digital towns, digital cities, and eventually a digital country?

His argument raised important questions regarding grassroots preparations for the digital villages’ project.

It is time that Kenya embraced technology but it should start from the level of cities and towns before moving to villages. Why would you want to have solar powered computers while all you can do is check mail and chat with strangers abroad?

If government records were online, then people would congregate in cyber cafés in the city instead of lounging at the ministry offices. Others would go to nearest towns and seek to access information and services online.

Eventually, astute business people will bring internet to towns to lessen the distance. Just like it happens when people get new district headquarters, the distance is made shorter. People will appreciate technology more.

With the critical mass, people will move the services to the local level, where two villages can unite and come up with one kiosk, whether powered by electricity or solar, it will achieve the objective.

This formed the basis for Kimani’s argument. To him, Nakuru should be a fully digital town, then Molo before finally moving to Tombo village. By the time connectivity comes to Tombo village, locals will already know about it.

If you ask the people behind the project, they say those who say the project should start from the cities are prophets of doom. And they have their reasons too. They say everybody should have a chance to understand and use technology, whether in the village or in the city.

Indeed, Dr. Bitange Ndemo, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication says the government is in the process of digitizing all records from the chaotic ministry of lands to the judiciary.

But this process has taken long! Imagine one can not even pay rates online. I think the e-transaction should be priority. Let us pay for the government bills we know and then we can do the 1970s search tomorrow. The e-transaction debate can be left for another day!

According to Dr. Ndemo, starting January, the ministry will start implementation of the
digital villages’ project at the village level. First assignment will be to collect sample census data. If successful, the exercise shall be rolled out in all constituencies.

By this time, Dr. Ndemo expects the youth to borrow from the youth fund or any
microfinance institution and invest at least Ksh. 100,000 required to set up a digital
village with two PCs. The ministry says it will provide training in entrepreneurship.

Ideally the digital villages are expected to raise the bar on service delivery and make the government more efficient. But without proper training and demystification of myths around technology, the whole project may just be a flop.

It is expected that the government will outsource most of the non core services like answering queries and customer care, among other services.

Adds Dr. Ndemo; “The strategy is to get the youth accustomed
into strict deadlines before they get to work for multinationals. Once we
start marketing, I am sure they shall get outsourced local customer care.
I think local companies are ready to focus on their core activities by
outsourcing non-core services”.

The emphasis on government services is not to say that the private sector will not benefit from the project. This is only because 90 per cent of the people who come to Nairobi every morning from the rural areas usually visit government offices for one reason or the other. Some of them are simple queries that could be solved at the click of a button.

There is no doubt that technology is a great leveler. It can give people from all walks of life access to information which they can turn into knowledge and improve their lives. E.g. farmers can share local information and successes and give each other tips on successful farming.

In education, students and teachers can design strategies on improving education by sharing information online. Various regions can develop their teaching materials. All sorts of people can use the digital villages to improve their skills.

For instance, in the morning have unemployed youngsters who use the equipment to teach themselves new skills. In the afternoon, school teachers and school goers come to complete projects and update their PC literacy. In the evenings it's open session - all kinds of people of any age use the facility. This way, the community will buy into the project so that the digital villages can eventually become community projects.

The idea is definitely noble; the villages can help foster an entrepreneurial spirit in Kenya but that spirit needs to be nurtured.

The idea still boils back to the question of local content. How do we encourage people to write histories of their clans, families and villages so that younger generations can access them in future? How do we tap the knowledge held by our grand parents and store it online? How can Kenyans use technology to inform future generations of our past?

That will be the daunting task that the government will have to address. Companies can partner with the government and design strategies to make the ICT villages a success. This can take corporate social responsibility to a new level.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Death of international journalism

There is no doubt that CNN has been lopsided in its coverage of Africa, giving prominence to stories of hopelessness and desperation. Such stories have been devoid of depth, often said to be because of lack of time and the number of stories they have to cover in the world news segment.

But I have never felt that CNN needs to tell a balanced story like I did during the current unrest. I needed Paula Newton, reporting from Nairobi, to interview and bring stories from both sides of the political divide.

The election was 50-50 and CNN had a duty to interview the people who voted Raila Odinga, those who feel he should be president as well as the other half who feel that Mwai Kibaki should continue.

For the three stories I watched on CNN, they were a disgrace to international reporting. They only interviewed those opposing peace and willing to perpetrate the violence. I believe we needed to hear the voices of the people not willing to fight, willing to bring dialogue into the mix.

I believe that not all people in the opposition were killing their neighbors. Therefore, the story did not need to interview Kibaki’s supporters, but should have gotten at least one person willing to say, there are other ways other than killing each other.

The international media claims to be taking international angles to stories but all CNN did was to show Kenya as a desperate and hostile country and visitors should not come. I am not saying it was better, but a balanced story would have done us proud.

Understanding the local language is important. For instance there was this injured guy who was brought on air, and the guys carrying him asked in Swahiliunampeleka hospitali (are you taking him to hospital?)

But the journalist said that the guys were asking in Swahili “are you shot or cut?” apparently, the injured guy is supposed to have answered that he was shot.

That was wrong translation. But I understand the journalist, the local language was a challenge and for the international audience, they may not care much what the injured guy said.

Because we have faith that people will heal and embrace each other again, I hope CNN will be around to cover that and will not rush to the next big story.

By the way, how comes CNN does not cover American soldiers or civilians bleeding and writhing in pain, yet they show such images from other places??