President-elect Ruto has a huge task ahead in making Kenya a global tech hub

Several stumbling blocks stand in Ruto's pathway to transform his country's tech ecosystem to claim a share of the global digital economy market
Ruto wants to land Kenya into the global tech map.
Ruto wants to land Kenya into the global tech map.
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As Kenya’s new president William Ruto plans to form his new government, a huge workload awaits him in his ambition to make the country a global technology powerhouse.

His manifesto (pdf) reads, “[We will] establish an Africa regional hub and promote development of software for export.” In the entire tech strategy, his government plans to spend $400 million.

The country will have to leapfrog a chain of hurdles, if it is to realize Ruto’s plans to create a local software development ecosystem and market the country globally as a distinguished provider of tech products and talent.

His predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta oversaw the growth of the country’s tech ecosystem to one of the strongest in Africa in the past 10 years, but while campaigning across the country, Ruto said there is still work to be done, and promised to take Kenya’s technology to the global market.

Curbing software talent brain drain will be an issue

According to the 2021 Google Africa Developer Ecosystem report (pdf), 38% of developers of the 716,000 developers in the region work for companies outside the continent, and the new government will have to make the local developer landscape more favorable to avoid more brain drain.

Developers working for foreign companies make 1.4 times more monthly income than those working for local companies and Kenya’s new government will have to deal with the difficulties local startups and corporates face in retaining their best programmers. Despite a high demand for programmers on the continent, Kenya added only 2,000 developers to the market in 2021, and only 15% of them were women.

One particular over-ambitious promise of Ruto’s is the laying of 100,000 kms of internet fiber across the country in the next five years. Though all 47 counties in Kenya are connected to the national fiber backbone, many parts in the rural areas still run on 2G and 3G networks. Despite Kenya having one of the highest internet speeds in Africa, only urban centers and their environs enjoy 4G internet speeds. The country now boasts seven sub-sea internet cables, but its cost of mobile internet is still the highest in the eastern Africa region, and its total fiber optic network is about 10,000 kms as of August 2022.

Time to secure government websites

His promise to make 80% of government services accessible online is achievable, but many government parastatals and agencies still depend on legacy IT systems, and most critically, tons of data are stored in traditional silos with no urgency to digitize them.

Most government staff require reskilling and upskilling to match modern technology demands if they are to help citizens access government services faster. Ruto will also need a proper budget to secure all government portals against cyber-attacks. In 2019, a total of 18 sensitive government websites were hacked.

At one of his campaign rallies, Ruto said that once elected, Kenyans will be making free mobile calls and browsing the internet at zero charges, an exaggeration of his manifesto which only targets to lower the cost. No country in the world offers free calls and internet. To afford free calls via WhatsApp or any other calls app, you will have to afford stable mobile internet.

Despite Kenya having one of the highest smartphone penetration rates in Africa, in June, the government introduced a 10% tax on all phones shipped into the country, further raising the cost of smartphones. Ruto will have to see how this plays out as he tries to allow more citizens access online government services through affordable smartphones.

Adopting frontier technologies is a challenge

Ruto also promises to implement the country’s 2022-2031 digital masterplan which recommends the application of frontier technologies such as blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), and quantum computing. However, there have been no signs of adopting recommendations made to the government three years ago by the blockchain and AI taskforce to use the technologies in all sectors to unlock the country’s digital potential.

He also faces the challenge of deciding whether to introduce a retail central bank digital currency (CBDC) or not after the central bank of Kenya started discussions last February about the probable introduction of an eShilling, an equivalent of Nigeria’s eNaira.

Though the Kenya Kwanza government pledges to reduce the cost of education, raise funding to research from 0.8% to 2%, and set up a one year paid internship for all university students, it will be tasked with the duty of ensuring the new coding program plugged into the curriculum this month is successful.

Kenya is the first African nation to teach coding in public schools. There also exists the existential challenge of updating the university curriculum to match Industry 4.0 demands. Many Kenyan graduates are unemployed due to a mismatch between sometimes outdated course content and market needs.

Ruto needs to avoid missteps that killed the laptop project

After they were declared winners of the 2013 presidential election, Kenyatta and Ruto promised Grade One pupils laptops to boost digital literacy from a young age, but the idea was confirmed to be far-fetched when the government resorted to purchasing tablets. Just a month to this year’s general elections they were spotted on sale in Uganda’s black market thanks to mismanagement of the program.

One tech project that was launched amid optimism, labeled as the ‘first smart city south of the Sahara’ is the Konza Technopolis digital city that has become a white elephant nine years after it was conceived. Ruto’s ICT ministry will need different approaches to overturn Kenya’s failed promise of a smart city to new hope that creates the thousands of jobs it promised.