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Digital villages bring Government to rural areas

FINANCIAL STANDARD
By | May 18th 2010
By | May 18th 2010
FINANCIAL STANDARD

By James Ratemo

Kenya is on target trek to becoming an ICT hub. Already, rural dwellers across the country are soaked in the ongoing digital revolution.

Gone are the days when Nairobi and other major towns, were monopolies of Government, banking and communication services.

Today, with the technological revolution sweeping across the face of the country, all these services have been delivered to rural areas through digital villages.

Thanks to the digital villages, also known as pasha centres, rural dwellers can read their emails, and access Government services including obtaining a Police abstract, checking status of passport application or read gazette notices online from the comfort of their villages.

Students in rural schools can also learn new skills and interact with students in other parts of the world through the Internet.

Learning is taking a totally new meaning, as teachers get near-instant access to information and developments many miles away.

New techniques

Farmers, too, are using the growth of Internet connectivity, to learn new techniques to survey and access new markets that otherwise remained closed due to lack of information.

But perhaps it is in the mobile telephony that ICT has picked up like a bush fire.

Beyond serving the basic communication function, ICT has fundamentally changed the face of banking with telecom operators now running exciting electronic money transfers.

Mobile money transfer through services like Zain’s Zap, Safaricom’s M-Pesa, and yu Cash have permeated segments and areas traditionally ignored by banks — low income earners and rural areas.

By the end of last year, M-Pesa had nearly netted 10 million subscribers with many more unregistered users accessing the service.

Banks, which initially resisted the innovation, have latched onto the technology train to enrich their product offerings in a bid to rally their revenues.

"Now that close to 90 per cent of the population can access M-Pesa, we can say we have largely succeeded," says Dr Bitange Ndemo, Information PS.

According to research, one in three Kenyans own a mobile phone. More and more schools are acquiring computer labs and both Government and private agencies are increasingly adopting ICT.

Internet is gradually moving away from cyber cafes to mobile phones. Portable modems sold by mobile telecom companies, are ensuring that ‘last mile’ connectivity is achieved, a feat that would have been difficult with terrestrial fibre cables.

As the Government implements part of the Kenya Communication Amendment Act 2009, Telecom companies Safaricom, Telkom Kenya, Zain Kenya and Essar are required to roll out the digital villages.

Access fund

Under the Act, the Communication Commission of Kenya is mandated to levy the operators a universal access fund of one per cent of their total revenue for the project rollout.

However, according to Ndemo, the Government asked each telecom operator to roll out five digital villages in all constituencies in the country, instead of the levy.

"We need to push more applications to rural areas, especially e-learning, e-government and e-commerce. These will come once there is robust Broadband throughout the country," says Ndemo.

Digital centres

Safaricom has already embarked on the project, and has put up 500 digital centres across.

The telecom operator is using its third generation (3G) technology in these centres for faster Internet.

Telkom Kenya is also testing its 3G network ahead of a planned rollout of digital centres using its mobile wireless technology.

Kenya Data Network, in partnership with Popote Wireless, is rolling out digital villages in the 210 constituencies.

The centres will be equipped with between 10 to 20 computers, Internet connection, printers and scanners.

"Once operational, the Government hopes to use the centres to deliver some of its services to the public online," says Ndemo.

According to the Kenya ICT Board, the agency coordinating the roll out of the Pasha Centres, the Government has trained 1,000 youth in the running of digital villages.

The Government will be giving these youth up to Sh1 million to set up the centres.

"This year, we shall roll out more than 1,500 digital villages," Ndemo says.

"However, this is inadequate on its own because the value proposition of a digital village increases with an increase in local digital content."

According to Ndemo, operators should seize the opportunity offered by the pasha centres to develop local content.

According to Alex Gakuru, Chairman, Kenya ICT Consumers Association, if well designed and equipped, digital villages are "convenience centres".

"Digital centres will offer the latest in communication technologies including Internet access, VoIP telephony, mobile phones, airtime, cash transfer, scanning, and e-government services like online tax returns for clearing and forwarding agents," says Gakuru.

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