Friday, January 11, 2008

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.


Anonymous said...

i have been al along suspicious about this digital village business. it just does not make sense to me and seems like a top down solution to me st worts to me it sounds like a cash
conduit for a few people.

i think theempahsis shuld be on education and developing cpacity within govt agencies after all its there job to provide this services that this so called digital villages should provide.

ms.dimpoz said...

i think that it is the governments job to do what needs to be done.

ms.dimpoz said...

i think that it is the governments job to do what needs to be done.

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