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Is Kenya set to experience a digital revolution?

83% of Kenyans access the internet using their mobile phones

Photo: (Courtesy/Standard)

Internet access is now ubiquitous in many parts of the world, and smartphone access is increasingly seen as a human right. It’s certainly the case that many Kenyans enjoy access to digital technologies, and in particular smartphones: according to one study, Kenya is in fact Africa’s top country for smartphone penetration.

But access to a smartphone, tablet or laptop is not necessarily the same thing as a full-blown digital revolution. It’s possible for many people to have smartphone access while the country in which they live is not yet fully geared up for digital access: poor connectivity, low technological education and more can all hamper the utility of the smartphone. This article will explore whether or not Kenya is on the verge of a mobile revolution – and what the country’s economy and society might look like if the revolution proceeds.

The basic numbers

According to the figures, the Kenyan people are already embracing the digital era. 83% of Kenyans now access the internet using their mobile phone, and well over 40 million Kenyan people – a significant proportion, given that the country’s population is just over 50 million – have access to the internet and all the web-based media it provides.


It’s also the case that specific sectors have enjoyed mini tech revolutions of their own. The online gambling industry for one, has enjoyed a big rise in popularity, while some global digital firms have set up shop in Nairobi. The most important thing to note here however, is the extreme security measures by which these online casino sites operate, for that is when proper technology could be said is being used, because safety and security are sometimes hard to come by.

Facebook, for example, revealed last year that it would be opening a so-called “content review centre” in the city. The centre will work to prevent the spread of offensive or similarly unwanted posts on the platform, and original indications were that Facebook wanted to hire a three-figure number of people to staff the office. This just goes to show how much users value safety and security nowadays, and how companies that want to be successful even in Kenya, need to meet certain criteria and high standards set by Kenyan users.

Industries and sectors

But as outlined above, the proliferation of smartphones and other internet-enabled devices does not necessarily mean that a digital revolution is likely to take place. In Kenya, this conundrum is most visible in the manufacturing sector, where there is clear evidence to suggest that digital transformation is not on the priority list of most chief executives. Research carried out by the software firm SYSPRO in conjunction with the Nairobi-based Strathmore University revealed that only around 10% of manufacturing companies in the country have automated their processes.

In a way, it is understandable that firms find it difficult to fully digitalise in this way. Access to the capital required to undergo a major digital revolution is not always easy in a country that is underbanked and not very high on the priority list of investment firms and banks. But it is also true that automation and digitalisation can bring about lots of benefits – including lower costs and the freeing-up of the labour market to work on more valuable tasks in an increasingly globalised, service-oriented world. For many Kenyan firms, then, digitalisation could represent a real turnaround – both in terms of strategy and finances.


Human resources?

But it’s also not clear whether Kenya has the human resources required to catalyse and sustain a digital revolution. Deep digitalisation in an economy and wider society is often associated with high levels of education, for a number of reasons. Not only are specific technical skills such as coding and software building necessary to build a more digital economy; it’s also necessary for non-technical skills, such as problem solving and project management, to be present across all departments of a business in order for it to flourish in a digital environment.

While Kenya is home to a number of good universities, such as the University of Nairobi, the wider educational framework required to transform the whole labour market is not yet as advanced. In the long run, this could prove to be the main stumbling block to a digital revolution – and one that cannot be fixed simply with the provision of basic smartphones. The competitiveness of Kenyan tech firms, then, could rely mostly on a potential structural change in education.

Kenya’s chances of experiencing a digital revolution any time soon are mixed. On the one hand, the country’s population is relatively digitalised – especially when it comes to smartphones. But there is also clear evidence to suggest that this digitalisation has not yet filtered through to the country’s major industries, especially manufacturing. Going forward, it remains likely that Kenyan businesses will struggle when it comes to transformation – at least until there is a more widespread understanding of the benefits it can bring.



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