The worrying new digital divide


The 90s was the decade of the Internet, the birth of personalised technology. As the Internet emerged from being a nerdy preoccupation patronized mainly by geeks and scientists, applications of the new technology slowly but surely grew and then exploded. The West and South East Asia galloped forward, carried by the astonishing abilities of new technologies to facilitate split-second transactions and open up new frontiers and means of delivery in fields as diverse as warfare and education.

Even staid old fields like agriculture were not left behind: the use of devices and systems permeated everything from milking cows to counting cabbage heads. Technology turned Western society upside down, but Western society had been ready for technology for some time. As more and more technology entered the workplace and disrupted the ways in which business was done and work conducted, a new socio-economic reality dawned on economists and social scientists: there was a digital divide. And it was massive.

The digital divide of the 90s was an economic inequality, expressed in the differences in the numbers and categories of people accessing information and communication technologies in the West as compared to the developing world. It was easy to see that while Western societies had ready access to computers and the Internet, developing countries in Africa, Asia and South America were rapidly falling behind. The reason for this was a simple one: state inefficiencies and corruption. In every country, access to technology in the 90s was a function of three converging factors: access to reliable electricity, access to telecommunication facilities, and access to credit for the general population.

In developing countries like Kenya, state monopolies like the defunct Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation, KPTC, were corrupt, useless entities that had rotted beyond repair: 90 years after its precursor first ran telephone lines in Kenya, KPTC still had less than 150,000 subscribers in the 1990s, in what was effectively a captive market.

Electricity was no different, and still continues to languish in an astonishingly backward state in Kenya and Africa. In the late 90s, Kenya rapidly liberalized telecommunications, with KPTC dying a swift, natural death. The resultant boom has astonished even the most optimistic of analysts, as mobile telephony quickly overtook and then killed and buried the old fixed line technologies of yore. Pretty much every adult in Kenya today has a mobile phone. But electricity remains a problem.

Kenyans have little or no access to electricity: over 100 years after the precursor to the Kenya Power and Lighting Company was set up, a mere 24% or so of Kenya’s population have access to power. And even these 24% are subjected to daily blackouts and crippling power rationing, making it difficult to roll out ICT to rural areas. There are alternatives to grid power – for example, solar power units for homes. But these are in return crippled by the last of the three factors: access to credit.

The Western world is built on credit, and citizens are able to rely on easy advances – credit cards, loans and the like – to purchase items on easy terms and get those items working to help pay themselves off. Kenya and most of Africa lags far behind in this sphere, as in access to electricity. Many NGOs exist to ostensibly help rural Africans get access to credit, but most are little more than briefcase operations with an eye on free money, abetted by the corruption that assails every aspect of life in the country.

This sorry state of affairs has created a new digital divide, one that will be more difficult to bridge than the old divide between the West and the rest. This new divide is one that has set countries like Kenya on a different technological path than the rest of the world: while the West integrates commerce and education into its digital plans and personal computers literally flood Western homes, in Kenya and Africa we have headed down the path of connectivity on mobile phones that are unsuitable for facilities like digital learning and large-scale online commerce.

Despite our remarkable advances in mobile connectivity, a personal computer and a good Internet connection remain the keys to the information age, and the lack of access to computers and an always-on Internet connection is holding Kenya – and Africa – back. What we have on the continent is little more than second-class Internet, dominated by expensive mobile phone carriers doling out “bundles” of data to subscribers like a wicked stepmother starving a stepchild to death.

Our priorities at national level do not help. Electricity transmission is still a monopoly in the country, and power generation is largely a joke. In a world in which access to water and power have become ubiquitous, Africa continues to languish behind, rived by corruption and beholden to massively inefficient state monopolies that jealously guard their poor, captive domestic markets. If there was one thing that Kenya’s and Africa’s governments should do, it is to pour their money into electricity generation and transmission, making such energy cheaper than water. But it is not just mere access to such energy: it is the making of such energy reliable and regular that unlocks the riches of the information age and begins bridging the new digital divide.

It is astonishing that in such a massive market as Kenya, in 2015, we still have just the one largely useless power transmission company. Our digital fortunes require that the electricity market is liberalized, and fast.

The author is an ICT consultant based in New Zealand.

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