Dear Kenya Airways, Some Observations to Improve In-Flight Customer Experience (that’s if you still care)…

Dear Executives in charge of KQ customer experience,

(I penned this from 38,000 feet above sea level, aboard KQ 100 on March 26, 2017, while crossing the Mediterranean Sea, to fly over Greece, towards the European continent).

I happen to fly with you quite often, and I think I’ve flown most of your direct-flight destinations, sometimes fighting tooth and nail to pay extra to fly directly – to London, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Accra, Bangkok, Amsterdam, to name a few. Since October last year, I have noted the efforts to acknowledge Frequent Flyers on board, beyond the flight parser’s welcome announcement.

There’s room for improvement, though. I benchmark this against my experience with other Frequent Flyer programs and their partner alliances (of which, the highest level I’ve attained is with SkyTeam, but I seemingly am reaping the least benefits, especially from Kenya Airways).

To ease your reading, I have italicized the major points I hope you can take away from my flight with you today.

My first point: as a Frequent Flyer, you will forgive me for growing to expect personalised services. You hold a repository of data on my -and other frequent flyers’ – preferences, if you care to dig into it, or collect it in formats that allow you to personalise my flying experience, that would do us all some good.

For instance, I always request a special meal. And yet, for this flight e.g. (booked via a KLM deal), I could not make the request for this KQ leg of my trip, nor indicate seat preference at the time of booking. (I have noted that for flights booked directly via KQ, however, I can do so).

Two things here: must I keep keying in my request with every booking? Given that bookings are done via multiple avenues, I do try to ensure that they have all my preferences captured in the booking (aisle seats, special meal etc). For this trip, I had to call your customer service center to make the request. It’s 2017, yawa. Coming up on my umpteenth flight with you, I am getting tired of always chasing after my requests being captured. (The option to amend previously captured preferences upon booking or checking-in would be a natural next step!)

Secondly,  what’s with your online data capture systems? I have a breezy time with KLM, Air France and linking to the Flying Blue system. Yet, when it comes to being referred to KQ’s partner website, blergh. The only thing your system seems to acknowledge is my Frequent Flyer number. Yet, most of my preferences are in the Flying Blue program database. Now, I understand Data Protection and Regulation mechanisms are likely at play, but what’s the bare minimum interoperability with the Flying Blue system you can aim towards, while upholding privacy safeguards? Else, what more can your systems do, even if it’s an option to save one’s preferences for future bookings and confirmations?

I suppose I could take a cynical approach here and be happy that you don’t have my data on preferences in a neat bow, if it meant that it would be prone to abuse. (I work in tech policy you see, so I’m super sensitive about personal data footprints and how they are (ab)used).

Then let’s get to the meals. Maybe  I’ve been compelled to pen this reflection because I’m stone-cold sober. (Your generous servings of alcoholic beverages is something you must never stop, we give thanks!). Halfway into my trip, and I’ve not had a meal. For breakfast, I didn’t need to as I had sorted myself. I did, however, hope to have some fruit in the special meal order- there was none. As my blood sugar levels dipped, I asked cabin crew for fruit; there was none (not in the meals on board for Economy class, at least).

Pro-tip: some apples, bananas, melon slices etc, aren’t a bad idea to have on board. Gives those of us who don’t like snacks of the junk-food variety some  options. (Keep the nuts forever, though!). At this time, I can’t quite indulge in the nuts, so one other option off my list. (What snack options for those allergic to nuts, by the way?)

I wait with trepidation, on what my lunch will be. It seems I shouldn’t expect fruit…

Let’s talk about the coffee served.  I imagine there’s some operational reason for which instant coffee (Nescafé) for Economy is the default. But I know for a fact that there’s good coffee on the other side of the curtain; something I’ve thoroughly enjoyed in other trips (oh, along with fruit).

By virtue of producing the some of the world’s best coffee, I have a difficult time reconciling the serving of Nescafé aboard the Pride of Africa.

If you will keep one data point about this passenger, right next to my Frequent Flyer details- it’s that I am a coffee lover (NOT instant coffee). Wondering out loud here: is it possible for that to translate to having decent coffee on future flights? (No milk or sugar, good ol’ black coffee). That’s why it’s doubly painful to down the instant stuff…but I needed it to make my alcohol-free trip bearable.

I really wanted to ask for “some of the good stuff from up front” when breakfast service was done and lights were dimmed. Twice, I tried to use the alert system (that  little blue light thingy? I forget the term, let’s blame it on low blood sugar). No one came. So each time I needed coffee, had to collect myself and go all the way to the back. (I don’t mind, actually. The walk is good for blood circulation). Couldn’t venture into asking for the good stuff given the fact that even a basic request outside “serving hours” comes across as a nuisance to your crew. This is something I’ve picked up  on severally. And I’m not one to beg for decent service.

Based on my experience with my other favourite alliance, such a request would not go unanswered, though. Isitoshe, (allow me infuse this with lugha ya taifa), even for frequent flyers not in Premier World/Business Class, an attendant is allocated to tend to the needs of  Frequent Flyers’  in cattle class.

My point in sum, is that there’s more to be done. Question is, will you do it? Or the fact that you got us to our destination is all there is to your hustle?

One time, on a NBO-JHB flights, one of your Executives was on board to assess customer experience, and so she came up to me and we had a chat. She thanked me for being loyal (though I come  up short on what resulting perks there have been). Pleasantly surprised, I asked her how she identified me, and she said my status popped up in the system (along with others – we were all in Economy). So I know you have ways to know who’s on board. She solicited some feedback, which I gave. Much of the same stuff mentioned here.

On a NBO-AMS flight, some survey forms were being dispensed; I was sufficiently marinated in wine and filled one out, even though I found the instrument very limiting to share meaningful insights.

Besides, all that feedback provision, and here I am. (My lunch request was pretty decent btw, and turns out there was some fruit. All of two small chunks of melon, pineapple and some traces of orange). I’ll survive till Heathrow, though I cringe at the thought of more instant coffee. I’ll dare request for the good stuff, and hope I won’t be shut down. I needed to read through a depressing report on communications surveillance back home (noting with irony that the practice is pretty much legal in my destination).

Next time you’re determined to improve customer experience, hope you can refer to these reflections. Also, next time your execs are “in the field”, have them fly economy. It’s just as important a benchmark as Premier World is.

Encourage more qualitative feedback from your Frequent Flyers. I see a lot of it shared via Twitter, but how much of it permeates through to those making decisions? Quantitative and one-off instruments limit what you can glean to truly remain the “Pride of Africa”.

(About 2 and a half hours to go on this trip). Let me comfort myself with the fact that at the very least, baggage allowance is more generous in my tier, when I need it. Else, I look forward to experiencing other perks of frequently flying with KQ.

If any of you care to do a right of reply, would be mighty nice. It could even be titled “Perks for KQ Frequent Flyers, both in Premier World and good ol’ Economy“. You can even have it in your next Msafiri issue; I’ll be back on board, and I’ll be happy to read such a piece.

Much as accolades and awards might stream in, you have a ways to go, not just in outranking your peers, but setting standards. Don’t -to borrow someone else’s words – pride yourself in being tall among stunted children. Not with such a tag line. Pride of Africa calls for always redefining that pride.

Onwards.

PS: how on earth can one utilise their miles with/on KQ, without having to call your centres? I have it figured out with KLM and Air France. Your system is a maze, Pride of Africa! Terrible user experience.

Also, please fix the KQ Msafiri portal. I need to redeem my miles from your Barclays’ co-branded Gold Credit Card before y’all sunset it. Please don’t make me have to call, I am not a fan of phone calls.

PPS: I am such an observer of phenomena, so whenever you really want to understand more, email me. (Please, don’t call. I don’t like calls).

Also, how about Fast Track forms for us folk who are loyal to y’all when we land at Heathrow? Can the service be extended to Elite Plus customers? You slide it along with the landing card…that would be peachy.

PPPS: I summoned strength to ask this lady for the good stuff. She said it’s for Business Class only. *sniffs*. (We have really good coffee in Kenya…sigh).

 

 

 

On Writing about Tech in Africa (part 2): our toothbrushes, toilets and bulbs

 Back in 2009, some journalist -perhaps trying to make her story about “the pearl of Africa” land some eyeballs- stated that Uganda was “a place where cell phones could outnumber light bulbs.”

Now, that little nugget has morphed into the widely parroted factoid, that there are more mobile phones than bulbs in Uganda. It’s been cited in keynotes, presentations, maybe even helped advance some careers.

By 2010, we were being regaled with a UN statistic, that there are more people on earth with access to cellphones, than to toilets. It’s only upon digging deeper that one finds that the toilets benchmark for this factoid, is the flush toilet. Assumedly, it is the gold standard of toilets to access.

This particular statistic has been unleashed more specifically on India; though it is cited as both about the world in general, India specifically, and with pepperings of the country of Africa.

It is a tragic irony to think in India, a country now wealthy enough that roughly half of the people own phones,” so many people “cannot afford the basic necessity and dignity of a toilet,” UN University director.

Perhaps one day cell phones will bring to half the African population something else they lack — clean toilets.” The World Bank’s Chief Economist, MENA region.

Friends, it’s now 2016, and we are comparing mobile phone access to…drumroll please…toothbrushes.

Behold, the rush to quantity Africa, and indeed the “developing world”. We are our mobile phones, toilets, bulbs and toothbrushes.

Have pointed out severally how uncritical and condescending these kinds of comparatives are; even more unfortunate is we — as Africans, or “global Southerners” — tweet, ooh and aah at these nonsensical references.

So it seems the number of bulbs, for instance, is picked from household surveys, as this Ugandan who was just as tired of that uncritically trumpeted statistic about his country sought to investigate.

Other than to tingle the senses of those excited about “Africa rush 2.0″, what do such findings – flaunted and cited ever so excitedly – do for the perceptions of Africa, not just to the rest of the world, but also ourselves?

As someone rightfully asked, what logical policy conclusion does one draw from these stats? I mean…toothbrushes?

Am I too cynical to think this part of the bigger digital colonialism creeping upon us? Or the digital era’s version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness?

One’s tingly senses are activated when one grows increasingly familiar with how such projects have worked to keep us in need, lacking.

Of toothbrushes, toilets and bulbs in Africa. And the mobile phone takeover.

I am the first to acknowledge that there is a dearth of data to help many actors make sense of the continent. This is more so in certain parts than others, such as the absence altogether, of Central Africa on many maps.

But for crying out loud, this has got to stop. What next, more mobile phones than coconut trees? (Oh snap, did I just inspire some Africa research “expert”?)

On mobile phones, we need a serious push back on the thinking/operational hypothesis that a mobile-first Africa will make for a digitally transformed continent aside from generating consumers for products that will predominantly be from elsewhere.

For all our excitement about Silicon Savannah, most emerging market countries — including India — are rounding errors when we look at their share of global revenues on the app stores. Revenue is concentrated into a handful of markets that take the lion’s share back into their own countries, with local sales from local developers almost absent except for unique markets such as China, South Korea and Japan,Winners and Losers in the Global App Economy.

No app will make up for a lack of political will.

So, for crying out loud, enough of these insulting comparatives. There simply is no other way to rationalise that kind of framing.

And as always, Africa is not a country. There is no buy one, get 53 free.

Just stop it.

PS: Some may also want to scroll through “On Writing about Tech in Africa“.

A much needed clapback

Right off the bat, this is not a dose of political correctness, but a much needed clap back to the vitriol some women have had to bear on the Internet streets.

First and foremost, I want to address the comrade Boniface Mwangi, who is on a meteoric rise to leadership in this country, and who’s an acquaintance. Because you represent the emerging crop of leaders from our generation, be knowing that we will be here to celebrate and admonish you in equal measure.  This right here, is a much needed dose of the latter.  In warding off Esther Passaris from his timeline, the comrade opted to bring in her relationship status into the argument. I suppose that was with the aim to put an end to that discussion, have the final say? Whatever the case, Boni, that was uncalled for, and is bad manners.

The incident to which I refer has its genesis in your framing a visit to Othaya around the former and current MPs. For whatever reason, you decided to introduce Mary Wambui into the discourse as a mistress. I know, freedom of speech, and no one is here to police that. I’m here to shed insight on the (un)intended consequences of descriptive language. As far as I can tell, Esther questioned that framing, and you invited her to look into other tweets you shared about Othaya; having checked those, they entailed visiting your former teacher, Mrs Mucheru, among other things, none of which justify the mistress reference/framing. It is not lost on anyone who looked that evan in an inquiry about kutaka shamba, you felt the need to once again introduce Wambui as wa Kifaki.

Where you took things after that, however, hapana pris, as we say. This was unnecessary and reeks of sexism, plain and simple. You went to some lengths to frame Esther’s intervention around her private life. Why? To what end? As someone asked you on that thread, do you need to attack a woman to feel powerful? It’s interesting to also note that of all the comments you responded to, it was one by a brother who rightfully stated you are better than that. To which you said, you were responding using her line of reasoning. C’mon son, really?

How was she policing your tweets by questioning a very problematic framing of another woman as a mistress? If anything, Boni, it is you who’s adopted the stance of moral police for women of political prominence. Na it is bad manners. In a later response to Madam Passaris, you then referred to Madam Wambui as Kibaki’s successor. Now what was so wrong with using that framing from the onset?

I’m not going to bog you or anyone else down with literature on sexism. I’m sure you can find that of your own accord. But homie, it is unacceptable to reduce women to their choice of partners, or to any indiscretions in any argument. Disagreements can and should happen. However, there is no excuse for what are not only low blows, but sexist ones at that.

Of the injustices you choose to speak up  and fight back on, you must realise that justice for and dignity of women is very much intertwined. And you are failing. You owe the two women — and indeed all women an apology.  Your Twitter bio says you’re living your life to make a difference. Surely, it can’t be perpetuating sexism. So, if it’s unlearning the script on how to ‘handle’ women who stand up to an argument or confrontation with you, settle that based on logic, not one’s choice of life partners. You are better than that.

 

As for the explosive screenshots that have been, it is heartbreaking just how many women were casualties. From the descriptions and rapey comments within the screenshots to the names  of women that were dragged in the Twitter mud, it has been a sad display of the simmering and unwarranted hate on women. The comments–my word. I can only hope that you are in safe spaces to deal with what must be traumatic and haunting. Poleni sana.

To all the women affected, your choice of sexual partners should have had nothing in those ego trips. The Internet became very unsafe for several of you this week, and my heart goes out to you. I salute yours and all women’s presence on the Internet. Most often than not, it is a form of protest, to hold your own, and to bear the risk of knowing that what is a great resource today, can so easily be used to tarnish your name. In dusting off this blog’s cobwebs to comment on this, it is in a bid to keep pushing back against the patriarchy, for it is a strong and malignant force.

Finally, for all the brothers who’ve called out these bad, sexist habits, thank you. I hope that you continue to see sexism in its many manifestations, and call it out.

 

A luta continua. Stay woke, for sexism lurks in all corners.

 

Taking Free Basics in Kenya for a spin.

(As posted on Medium). 

I’ve been meaning to do this for a while. At iHub, we believe in having user experience at the heart of consumer-facing technology. Also, I’ve heard many a Facebook exec counter the backlash with a valid question: how many advocates (for/against) have actually used Free Basics? So, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I dug out my Airtel Kenya SIM card (Airtel is the current sole partner) and took the app for a spin. (For the record, I’m testing out Free Basics on a Smartphone — a Samsung Galaxy S3 to be precise, will also test out on a feature phone in coming days).

Step one: Downloaded the app from Google Play Store (used my paid-for Internet, not sure if one can download it without incurring charges).Free Basics needs access to:

Screenshot_2015-11-22-20-58-10

(Pretty light app: 1.18MB)

Step two: Read through the Data and Privacy Policies.

Step three: A cursory glance of the applications available on Free Basics in Kenya.

The gist of it

17 applications are available on Free Basics in Kenya. Two are news sites: BBC News and Daily Nation. Facebook and its Messenger platform also feature. One can also access Brighter Monday, one of the most popular job sites around, Scholars4Dev for scholarship information, as well as OLX, where one can search for real estate, cars, job listings and more (one can also submit an ad). Ebola Information, Facts for Life, Totohealth, BabyCenter & MAMA offer health information (the latter three focus on maternal and child health). You also have Accuweather (one can get weather information on local towns and cities, and one can search by postal code or city to access more info). Girl Effect offers ‘articles and tips for girls’. Jamii Forums ushers you to various boards to discuss news, platforms, politics and more. Supersport is available for sports updates. Wattpad offers access to free books and stories (none of which are by local writers, to my knowledge). Then there’s good ol’ Wikipedia.

That, for now, rounds up the ‘on-ramp to the Internet’ in Kenya. Would be happy to hear from any early testers if any of these apps weren’t there when the initiative was launched. Back then, Facebook had a pre-selected range of applications. Now, they say all it takes to have your content on the Free Basics platform is meeting the participation guidelines and technical specifications, i.e. developing for the platform, to meet zero-rating requirements.

Some Initial Observations (make of them what you will!)

While loading, a message reads ‘Visit popular websites for free with Free Basics.’

Popular, by whose demand?

Scrolling through a couple of news articles via the Daily Nation app, I noted that the comments section was missing. One can read and share a story, but not comment on it. To share, one has to leave Free Basics, where data charges apply. (Oddly enough, that was the case for the ‘share via Facebook’ plugin on the site).

Same thing with the BBC News app. Having found the BBC Africa section, and found a news item on Kenya, I sought a comment section, to no avail.

Over at Jamii Forums, I quickly scrolled to the ‘Kenya Forums’ section. One can see all the latest posts, and to participate, one has to log in. This presumes that one is already signed up for Jamii Forums. Meanwhile, on the main site (over on the Internet I pay for), there’s a pop up that asks me to register, since I don’t own an account yet. I would be very keen to observe a first time Internet user’s behaviour around this barrier to participation.

Jamii Forums screenshot off desktop
Jamii Forums screenshot off desktop
Jamii Forums homepage screenshot off mobile web
Jamii Forums homepage screenshot off mobile web
Jamii Forums homepage screenshot off Free Basics
Jamii Forums homepage screenshot off Free Basics

The Ebola Information app (from UNICEF) rightly indicates that while there are no known instances of the virus in Kenya at this time, many citizens are concerned, and that the site is presented to answer frequently asked questions. Great! Only…

Screenshot_2015-11-22-20-05-56
Screenshot before clicking through ‘Read more’
Screenshot after clicking through ‘Read more’
 … It is not quite clear where the FAQ section within this app is. If one were to report this anomaly, they’d likely go to the ‘Contact’ section. There, one is treated to UNICEF’s contact information (email), and the Ministry of Health Ebola Hotline. Let’s imagine that this app is being accessed in some emergency or panicky situation. Fill in the blanks.

Over at the Wikipedia app, I couldn’t even see the option to edit a news article, let alone it redirecting me to the paid-for Internet. My hypothesis: it creates the notion that Wikipedia is to be consumed, and not necessarily contributed to. Imagine that carried across to Wikipedia as many of us know it!

Inconclusive Conclusion

The analysis above is selective, and I’ll factor in my own bias (wariness about this version or ‘ramp’ to the Internet). The argument for or against Free Basics takes many forms, primarily of a technical nature. I like to bring back what I call the ‘spirit of the Internet’: the ability to connect, consume, create, collaborate and correct (content)— all in equal measure. The above sets the scene for consumption, which is one component, but not the only component of the Internet. Much in the same way that in many parts of the developing world, the pervasive notion that Facebook is the Internet needs some serious correcting.

While I imagine that the Free Basics advocates would say that this only encourages folks to cross over to the open Internet to comment on the news articles or sign up for such popular fora, the assumption is that people are inherently motivated to go to that trouble. This, in a country known for peculiar mobile telephony use. While I don’t have the stats to corroborate my take, I imagine that this would dis-incentivise many from going to the trouble of all the clicks it would take to participate. I could be wrong, but I don’t have the stats.

One of the first things I noticed in step two, was the (lack of) Community Standards around Free Basics. Over at the Free Basics Participation Guidelines, it is stated that services are not rejected on the basics of their (Facebook’s) Community Standards. For reference, said standards address self-injury, dangerous organisations, bullying and harassment, attacks on public figures, criminal activity, sexual violence and exploitation, and regulated goods. So we know what does NOT form the basis of rejection of platforms as far as such standards go, so what does? (Or is that since it’s mostly a consume-first platform, these aren’t necessary?). What happens if, say, Free Basics in Kenya or elsewhere, has a niche audience that would form a prime target for some problematic organisation or ideology that violates the community standards? How can Free Basics users learn the principle of self-regulation, that governs paid-for Internet use, including Facebook itself? How do Free Basics users report inappropriate content?

Facebook have been saying that at least 50% of Free Basics users have crossed over to the open and paid-for Internet within 30 days of coming online for the first time. Having pushed a bit further on the stat recently, one of their Heads of Policy said that they stay on the paid Internet, though this isn’t part of the popular narrative on the conversion rates. Who else, other than Facebook, has access to these statistics? Giving the benefit of the doubt, say the statistic is actually true. What norms about what the Internet is, does Free Basics (un)willingly postulate? Facebook says that Free Basics doesn’t create a two-tiered Internet and refers to the above statistic. They also say that without such a program, more people are left offline, unable to realise the benefits of the Internet.

We all want as many people, if not all to be connected. But the idea of a ‘free’ Internet is a particularly nefarious one, leaving room for loopholes such as these, and actually creating various tiers to Internet access. This has been compared to tiered access to water and education. While some may say that some water or education is better than none, why is it that there are different forms to access? So some Internet is better than none at all (especially for the developing world). But, what constitutes ‘some Internet’? Who decides on what ‘some Internet’ is, and why are they the ones to decide?

There are many arguments packed into the zero-rating, net neutrality and Free Basics discussions, and it wouldn’t do justice to pack them into one article. I will try to tackle the various domains, from my perspective, in future posts.

Would love to conduct this exercise with first time Internet users. Currently thinking through the research design, to enable unearthing of insights on the Internet they aspire to access, versus versions such as Free Basics issued. For now, I welcome discussion and feedback on the above, and perhaps others to take Free Basics on a spin in their respective territories! After all, advocacy for a free(as in freedom), open and secure Internet will require evidence and not mere opinion.

Should Government Regulate Social Media in Kenya?

In the past week, we have seen one faux-pas in an Embakasi digital prayer cell group go viral, and the private recordings of a private affair between a DJ and a woman become a matter of ‘public interest’. All irreversible. All embarrassing to those in them, and entertaining and/or appalling to the (un)willing recipients.

 

These are some of the outcomes of a digital society, one that is set to continue growing in number, of both passive and active users. The gadgets in our hands and on our laps, or on our desks, are avenues to transmit all manner of content and data. “Traditional” disseminators of information find themselves contending for attention with the more connected and engaged audiences who have the means to create, produce and share news, gossip, (mis)information and more, at their disposal.

 

Kenyan media and corporate Kenya have, since the turn of the decade, been getting in the social media game. The creative ways in which social media managers for various brands leverage a trending topic to do some product placement is impressive, if sometimes inappropriate, and speaks to just how mainstream social media have become as channels for communication and marketing. There are dedicated social media channels for breaking and sharing news, and engaging audiences. Civil society, one would contend, is being redefined or reclaimed on social media.

 

We have, to some extent, a digital government. Indeed, this was the alternative branding for the incumbent government during the pre-2013 election campaign period. Many a politician can be found on social media. A primary motivation, especially for those who engage in their personal capacity, is to directly share, and perhaps connect with the electorate. As with mainstream media and corporates, politicians are having to learn that the rules of social media engagement are different. These are avenues for many-to-many communication; it does not suffice to merely broadcast, no matter who you are.

 

The question many are now asking is whether social media use should/can be regulated.

 

Recently, some Kenyan lawmakers called on the Communications Authority to draft policies that would enable Parliament to enact laws around regulating the use of social media. They cited the fast-moving, irreversible nature of information shared on these platforms. We have seen the good, the bad and the ugly presented by real-time sharing of information. In their case, the parliamentarians cited a case of the news of an MCA’s passing being posted first on social media, before the family of the deceased was informed. That, in fact, isn’t the first of those cases. Nor is the sharing of unverified information, rumours or misinformation new, much in the same way we are used to alternative versions of events being shared on these platforms.

 

The desire to regulate social media is not unique to the Kenyan government. It is an issue that comes up often in many countries, including our neighbours who have interesting laws in effect. Efforts to reign in electronic forms of communication through laws such as the contentious Security Bill, and the recent announcement by some Members of Parliament hint at reactive, rather than proactive and evidence-based approaches. The benefits of social media, and the Internet in general, in connecting people to each other, and to vast opportunities don’t seem to be at the fore of legislative considerations. Besides, regulating social media content is a game of whack-a-mole, at best. It has been offered that a more effective approach to dealing with bad speech or content, is to enforce more speech, free speech.

 

Digital literacy, in my view, is best acquired through continued engagement, and not necessarily trainings, especially in the pedagogical format favoured in most cases. Granted, there might be an appetite for the latter. It is through trial and error, and being corrected along the way by others with whom we engage, that we learn when to stop and question the veracity of a piece of information before spreading it. This is increasingly evident among Kenyans online. The confrontations and counter narratives presented around the news items capturing public attention this past week, and many other times before, indicate that it’s not easy to propagate one narrative, and for it to go unchallenged. This is starkly different from traditional forms of communication, where the audience often would not get a chance to share their views, especially in a sustained fashion, be it traditional media or politicians as the information nodes.

 

Lawmakers would do well to spend time better understanding how social media in Kenya are used, before proposing laws to ‘regulate’. The bad and the ugly are not the entire story.

 

On Writing about Tech in Africa

(As posted on Medium)

Read an article (on international media) lately about some tech startup or innovation in Africa? Have the words “disrupt”, “revolutionise”, or phrases like “the next big thing” appeared? Have you found yourself believing that there’s a “tech revolution” across the continent (country) of Africa?

It is understandable that the rest of the world (Africans included) is now a bit more aware, and perhaps (more) vested in the “Africa Rising” narrative. As a friend once put it: “Africa rising ; someone opened the oven early, the yeast is not ready”.

It is tedious, to always be on the reactive side of matters Africa — be it in the political, humanitarian , and now, tech framing. The instruments of global opinion-shaping media are skewed to the global North, even though there are, and have been concerted efforts to “Africanise” them; solutions offered to the “time to tell our own African stories” mission, if you will.

Reading piece after piece about African tech startups or tech innovations, coupled with working in one of the emerging ecosystems in “the home of the Silicon Savannah”, I have noticed the range of lexicon used to describe them. “The [insert Silicon Valley enterprise] equivalent of Africa/country X in Africa.” “ Startup X or innovation Y will “revolutionise” or “disrupt” industry Z.” Share others that come to mind.

It is tiring, and irking. But more importantly, it’s problematic for a number of reasons.

I appreciate that media works in a certain way — globally, regionally and internationally. Sensationalism seems to be here to stay. All that aside, my contention really is with the tech determinism that is created in framing nascent endeavours as “the next big thing(s)”. And it is interesting to note that many of the innovations/start-ups are often still trying to figure out what their business, profit and sustainability models are/will be, perhaps even trying to grasp the operating environments, the challenges and opportunities preceding the tech. Forward thinking is always welcome, but creating a false determinism, especially given the oft missing context of operational environments is, in my opinion, tainting the outlook on tech in Africa, by Africa, for Africa. I also don’t believe that many, if any of the startups or innovators interviewed (when interviewed) get to review the final drafts of these media articles. Even if they do, one would not fault them for not correcting the descriptions created, or for even performing to the media spotlight (no such thing as bad press, right?) . In an attention economy, you have to do what you can to gain traction, as many probably argue. It’s not to say that the industries in which tech innovations or startups operate or innovate won’t be disrupted; the framing in many a news article or documentary creates the false notion that this will happen in the next year, or two. And when that doesn’t happen, whispers of “why aren’t we seeing another M-PESA” start to be heard. Impatience starts to creep in. Any new or recycled attempt to figure a role for tech in some sector catches the hungry media’s radar. Another news article is quickly and eagerly put together. Yet another “next big thing”, another startup/innovation that will “revolutionise” or “disrupt”. A vicious cycle.

For our dear friends in local and international media who feel vested in writing about tech in Africa, note the following: You are not necessarily helping by using such bold declarations and descriptions, especially if research or background assessments to establish the context(s) around which these innovations/startups emerge is/are not part of the consideration. If you haven’t been informed already, please understand: technology is NOT a panacea. I do see why it is so tempting to make that the case for Africa. What were your news organisations writing about Africa (local and regional ones included) five, ten years ago, after all? A startup or innovation in, say, edtech, will not “revolutionise” learning. At best, it will amplify the preceding efforts. At worst, it will create further divides.

The Future of Cyberspace in Kenya

(As first posted on Medium).

The Global Conference on Cyberspace, hosted by the Kingdom of the Netherlands on 16th and 17th April, 2015, was a very interesting one to have attended. The convening drew attendance from governments and private sector players; civil society were invited to the table, with a one and a half day pre-event that served as a capacity-building program, and an ‘unconference’ event where they could set the agenda, discuss further on issues that were brought up at the conference, or those not tackled altogether.

The themes under which the future of cyberspace was discussed, were freedom, security and growth. The three are interesting departure points to assess cyberspace considerations in each country. For instance, in Kenya, we continue to enjoy Internet freedom, something I contend is by default, not design, in that it hasn’t been a space that the government has attempted to regulate from the onset. That said, the freedom enjoyed as a result of minimal regulation also exposes individual users and institutions alike to any number of risks — data privacy violations, cyber fraud, to name a few. Kenya is currently awaiting two pieces of legislation: the Data Protection Bill and the Cybercrime and Computer Related Crimes Bill that will introduce measures to protect user privacy as well as provide legal options through which to address cybercrime grievances. Reviews of various versions of these bills have noted that there have been clauses that could undermine freedom of expression. It will be imperative for the Legislative processes to balance provisions on security, privacy and freedom on the Internet.

We will soon need to have a conversation on Net Neutrality in Kenya. India is currently engaging in a conversation on the issue, around the regulatory attempts that could undermine it. The Internet.org effort by Facebook and other tech companies, already on Kenya’s shores (in partnership with Airtel) has come under criticism, that it undermines the principle of network neutrality. The initiative, aimed at first time Internet users in the developing world, is already missing the mark, as the target group makes up for a very minimal percentage of its current users. (If you are an Internet.org user in Kenya, would love to hear your thoughts on the service!)

On security, insights from the 2014 Kenya Cyber Security Report indicate the growing risks that individuals and institutions are increasingly facing — ranging from malware, to fraud. User security in online banking systems locally has been found wanting (read from page 28 of the above report on this). Awareness of the risks posed in cyberspace is minimal, and measures to address and mitigate cyberspace risks, challenges and threats exist mostly on paper. For instance, Kenya has a national cybersecurity strategy penned by the ICT Ministry that outlines measures to be taken to secure the country’s cyberspace and ensure cyber resilience. Since 2012, Kenya has supposedly had a National Computer Incident Response Team Coordination Centre (KE-CIRT/CC), in accordance with ITU recommendations. The said centre is housed under the Communications Authority of Kenya. Its work and impact is unknown, though, you can supposedly report an incident or vulnerability. The importance of such a response mechanism has motivated individual efforts by IT security professionals to offer incident response, share information and raise awareness, in the glaring absence of institutional mechanisms within government. The Kenyan government was once again quick to sign up as a ‘founding member’ of the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise that was unveiled at the close of the conference. Will be watching with unabated breath to see the government’s contribution to this new body. We all remember the repeated defacing of the Kenya government institutions’ websites, as well as hacking of social media accounts…makes one wonder what all these strategies and institutions in place are up to. The same government could violate our constitutional right to privacy in the name of national security. (Let’s not forget the scandal that was the Chinese nationals arrested in Runda in December last year, and who as yet, haven’t been prosecuted for the lack of legislature to this effect.)

On growth, it was rightfully noted that “the Internet is rapidly becoming the most critical infrastructure for economies around the globe”. In Kenya, business and economic growth facilitated by the Internet has massive opportunities as well as challenges. Our Internet-based annual economic outputs are currently valued at approximately Kshs. 100 billion, the second highest in Africa. Impressive indeed. However, further growth and diversification of Internet and cyberspace-related economic activity is limited by lack of regulatory frameworks such as the aforementioned Data Protection Bill. Kenya was once poised to set up a Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector, greatly undermined as a result of a delayed process of enacting the Bill. Initiatives and investments such as Rockefeller’s Digital Jobs Africa bear massive potential, but challenges- including talent — need to be addressed carefully and strategically to ensure that the country can derive more economic growth and generate employment via cyberspace activities.

It’s not all up to government though. Training institutions (with their ever increasing ICT-oriented courses and curricula) need to churn out talent that can either be hired or that can be enterprising around the Internet economy. Civil society needs to align itself to the cyberspace, to keep government (and private sector) in check in their efforts, as many of them could undermine freedoms that have been hard-earned. Academia have their research and analytical work cut out for them. All have to work together to facilitate knowledge exchange and wholesomely contribute to a safe, free and secure cyberspace in Kenya.

A Side Note: other interesting observations from the conference.

From the onset, governments as represented by Ministers read out statements on their position and efforts on enhancing the cyberspace. It was particularly interesting to note the different angles from which various countries approached the discussion. MENA countries emphasized that countering terrorism in the cyberspace is their priority. China invited others to join them in their efforts, reiterating that they believe in the freedom, security and growth of the cyberspace (lots of eyes rolled). Sub-Saharan African countries — Uganda, Senegal and Ghana — read out their ministerial statements, in which they reiterated commitment to passing laws to address cyberspace related issues, with Senegal referring to the African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection, recently adopted by the regional body as a guiding principle for their local efforts. There was the usual extending of a begging bowl; assistance from the Global North was sought.

It was noticeable that Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa weren’t as vocal/visible. The three countries are ‘leaders’ in Internet connectivity and have significantly large ICT sectors, one wonders where their ministers of ICT and/or Foreign Affairs were.

It was interesting how most discussions boiled down to matters of mass surveillance (many spirited attempts at justifying it from government types), privacy and security(whether one can exist without the other) in cyberspace.

On civil society participation, it was good to note involvement within the conference programme (e.g. Nnenna Nwakanma’s inclusion in the opening panel, where she fantastically represented civil society voice) and beaming their thoughts out loud via the Twittersphere. That said, I was rather disappointed by the low turnout at the unconference, given dissatisfaction expressed in the main conference discussions by civil society types in attendance. Some of the unconference sessions, however, were interesting, others altogether problematic. (In my view the framing around ‘the next (two) billion Internet users’ worries me…that’s for another day).

However, it was also notable that no civil society organisations were founding members of the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise…so much for a multi-stakeholder approach!

Kenya Tech Community’s ‘Dalliance’ with the Goverment

It is no doubt that many Kenyan stakeholders have benefitted from the ‘Silicon Savannah’ and ‘East Africa ICT Hub’ monikers bestowed upon Kenya. It is also no doubt that ICTs are a player in virtually every aspect of society and industry today, and are here to stay. All stakeholders are clamouring to establish their significance and how their roles and responsibilities will be disrupted by digital technologies and the Internet.

Kenya’s tech sector has been lauded, and recently even ‘validated’ by the government of President Kenyatta. From government investment into incubators, as is the case with Nailab, to the famed recent impromptu visit by His Excellency to iHub, Nailab and other tech companies housed at the Bishop Magua Centre (including a shout out in the State of the Nation address) and even funding commitments to establishing entities like Enterprise Kenya, to be co-facilitated with players from the tech sector.

Some have said the community is currently experiencing a ‘honeymoon phase’, with government. This isn’t a bad thing, as it has taken lots of hard work for the tech players to gain rightful recognition. However, players in this scene, and in particular, local tech folk with access to the highest office of the land, will do well to learn from the missteps and relationship dynamics that the Kenyan government has had, especially with the media and civil society. The Public Benefit Organisations (PBO) Act, The Media Council Bill and Kenya Information Communications (Amendment) Act come to mind. How media and civil society actors have found themselves battling against problematic clauses in these laws provides a cautionary tale for the nascent ICT sector.

As the tech space expands, government is also looking at regulating it, and this could be done in ways that undermine the emerging local scene, if caution is not heeded. Laws proposed and government thinking around data privacy and cyber security, for instance, do have implications that may complicate e-commerce and Internet freedom. The Security Laws Amendment Act had clauses that touched on ICT components, in particular Internet and social media use for communication. While wining, dining and basking in government/The Presidency’s attention, those representing the tech sector–from the non-government/non-profit hubs, to private sector tech companies and everyone in between — should keep a very watchful eye on what the Executive and Legislative arms of government are doing, boldly or stealthily, as far as investment commitments, regulations and laws go, even as they hope to further their agendas. It would be a tragedy to have been coopted into an agenda that undermines the future of the ICT sector.

The tech sector, however defined, does not exist in a vacuum. The battles between government and media and civil society also have an impact on how this cross-cutting sector pans out. Bloggers for instance, who fall within media and civil society, rely on ICTs for their work. Rules and regulation attempts, impact their work. The tech community also expands to the consumers of products and innovations. They should be kept in mind as well.

 

There is ongoing talk for players in the tech community (innovators, business operators and others) should have their own association, to serve as a voice of the technology sector in Kenya. How that shapes up will be interesting, as we also figure out what and who comprises the tech sector/community in Kenya. Recent history bears lessons for those at the forefront to heed, as we forge as ‘the home of the Silicon Savannah’.
This article also appeared on the Daily Nation, on April 23, 2015.

What If Tuko Pamoja After All?

By now we have all read up on Forbes latest release on matters Africa, and those who are deemed most wealthy. Our homie, Uhuru Kenyatta, of the Tuko Pamoja fame, (or ICC..depending on the circles you roll in) made it onto the list.

I have a difficult time believing that this is the best pic they could find of him…but hey! Done a google image search…and….well…

I remember the indignation with which most of us responded to his Tuko Pamoja tagline that I believe is at the core of his presidential campaign. The ever philosophical RoomThinker was very articulate in this here open letter(blog) to Mheshimiwa.

So, in a nutshell, a guy owns at least 500,000 acres of prime land spread across the country. Yaani,(in other words), half a million acres of the Muthaigas, Nyaris, Rundas…if that’s what we define as ‘prime’ land…I tried to imagine the expanse of such land in my mind’s eye…even in broken down chunks…let’s just say, I’m still imagining.

The land was acquired by his father in the 1960s and 1970s when the British colonial government and the World Bank funded a settlement transfer fund scheme that enabled government officials and wealthy Kenyans to acquire land from the British at very low prices. ” [Forbes]

Continue reading “What If Tuko Pamoja After All?”

Why We Should Give A Damn About Kenya’s Politics.

Yes, I know. Many of us hear the word ‘politics’ and want to puke. I get it!

Before I go any further, just how many of us have taken time out to delve into the subject matter that is politics, to understand its definition?origin? I often hear talk of matters being ‘politicized’ and I’m left to wonder just what that means. While I agree that said word’s definition and context is subjective, I think it’s safe to conclude that it has nothing but a negative connotation in Kenya. In fact it would seem that Kenyan politics has been the total sum of actions of a select few(who selected them?) that do not resonate with the national pulse. What do we despise? Is it the institution or the people who’ve stepped up to it and morphed into behemoths of corruption,greed and just about any other vice under the sun?
Continue reading “Why We Should Give A Damn About Kenya’s Politics.”