For a formidable digital economy, let's ditch past

Public policy and governance practitioner Brian Otieno. [File, Standard]

Dubbed the Silicon Savannah, the Kenyan tech scene is experiencing an exponential boom.

Not only is the country attracting international attention and nurturing local talent, but it has also strategically positioned itself as a tech hub of Africa.  

From a continental standpoint, Kenya leads in terms of accessibility to digital infrastructure.

Since 2016, the ICT sector has grown in leaps and bounds, on an average of 10.8 per cent annually.

In the face of this flourish, it is projected that by 2025, the digital economy will account for 9.24 per cent of the country’s GDP.  

To provide further context, only 26.7 per cent of Kenyans could obtain formal financial services in 2006.

The disruption caused by pioneering digital financial services like M-Pesa, however, which provides phone-based money transfers, has helped that figure triple. Today, 65 per cent of Kenyans have an internet connection, and 98 per cent utilise mobile money.

More importantly, Kenya is a leader in the continent in the development of ICT skills. These abilities span the gamut of fundamental digital literacy, smartphone penetration and usage, the internet and social media usage, alongside more sophisticated abilities in the emerging technology spectrum.

While Kenya continues to position itself for the tech revolution, the demonisation of the digital job terrain, particularly due to the lack of or little appreciation of the terrain, has resulted in nefarious and unfounded schools of thought being peddled to the detriment of the country.

In the Information Age, tech work is worlds apart from the industrial era job structure and frame in many ways.

Let’s begin by addressing the elephant in the room: traditional work structures just don’t fit neatly within the tech industry.  

Unlike the clock-in, clock-out factory jobs of the past, tech needs are dynamic. Companies scale up or down based on client demands, a reality that necessitates a flexible workforce. Here’s where the gig economy shines. It offers a win-win: it provides companies with the agility they need while allowing skilled tech workers the freedom to choose projects.

Additionally, a persistent misconception is that the digital job terrain is largely about content moderation- a notoriously challenging role but only one small part of the ICT landscape.  

The vast majority of tech gigs are essential value chain roles. Think of it this way: a car factory doesn’t just have engineers designing the vehicle – it needs workers to attach labels, maintain production lines, and more.

Similarly, the tech world thrives on a network of specialized tasks. Someone might digitally map street signs for self-driving car development or annotate datasets for machine learning. These are crucial steps in the tech ecosystem, and the individuals who contribute are compensated fairly for their expertise.

Perhaps, and more critical for stakeholders to understand, is that the traditional “8-5, permanent job with a pension” model was designed for a bygone era. Owing to their dynamism, tech gigs, on the other hand, require a new legal framework.

The push for a rigid application of old laws is off the mark. We need contemporary legislation that reflects the dynamic nature of the tech industry while ensuring fair treatment for workers. This isn’t about weakening protections; it’s about creating a framework that fosters innovation and protects workers within the unique context of these jobs.

Kenya has emerged as a leader in the African digital job terrain.  However, these jobs are highly mobile and we must not get complacent. Companies can easily shift operations to Uganda, Ethiopia, or elsewhere.

Just as Kenya took advantage of opportunities once held by India and the Philippines, other countries are eager to do the same.

Here’s where we face a critical choice: do we burden this burgeoning industry with overly restrictive regulations, potentially driving jobs away? Or do we find a way to streamline operations and nurture this economic opportunity?  The answer should be clear. It’s time for a reality check.  Due consideration is fundamental so that we do not inadvertently hinder Kenya’s growth, but instead become champions of economic opportunity.

The benefits of these tech gigs far outweigh the challenges, many of which have been addressed. Kenya is building something new, an opportunity that fosters skills development, international exposure, and injects capital into the economy.

Many nations would welcome the opportunities Kenya has secured. Let’s not sabotage them with short-sighted regulatory frameworks.

Instead, let’s work together – tech companies, key stakeholders, and policymakers alike – to create a framework that fosters worker well-being and economic growth. Both are achievable! As opposed to the constant demonization, solutions need to come from within and should involve all players.

The Kenyan tech scene holds immense potential, and it’s our collective responsibility to ensure it flourishes. Let’s embrace the future, not cling to the limitations of the past.

- Mr Otieno is a public policy and governance practitioner

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