When Kenya entered coronavirus lockdown in mid-March, temporary disruption to the food supply caused hardship for those dependent on traditional produce markets. Many services were kept going, however, thanks to the mobile phone network that connects 91 percent of the country – the highest penetration rate in Africa.
This is the tip of the iceberg, and what lies underneath the water is the 20 years of hard work and innovation to provide a service to all Kenyans regardless of their socio-economic status.
In the year 2000, telecommunication masts were seen popping up everywhere in the cities and countryside; the infrastructure for a countrywide mobile phone network. At first, it was seen as a mere replacement of the already existing landlines, whose black wires could be seen crisscrossing the streets and highways from one end of the country to another.
Going wireless would undoubtedly offer a more aesthetically appealing solution, although the big red and white Tour Eiffel-like structures were still a bit of an eye-sore, especially to those not in the loop. To own a mobile phone back then was a luxury and the cost of calling one was too high for the average mwananchi (citizen).
But the rules and laws of a free market economy soon kicked in, forcing prices down and in the same stroke, making mobile phone services available to a wider public.
Soon, practically everyone owned a mobile phone or at least had access to one. Mobile services have grown from just making phone calls to accessing the internet and most notably, mobile banking services. The most famous of the latter is M-Pesa, which moves on average 180 million Dollars (US) every day, making it the most profitable business in the country and in East Africa.
Thus, the invisible lines crisscrossing the country have become a lifeline to the economy, and have given services and opportunities to practically all of the Kenyan population, most of which remains largely rural at 70 percent.
Kenya boasts internet speeds faster or at par with many first-world countries, ranking second in Africa, according to the Worldwide Broadband Speed League. And during the pandemic, Kenyans have taken full advantage of this. Although many institutions were caught unprepared when the Government announced a countrywide lockdown, the already established mobile networks facilitated the transfer of many services online.
This was especially felt in the education sector, where many schools have continued to offer classes online. Education is indeed an essential service and putting it on hold until the pandemic is over would lead to intellectual and moral diseases that have far worse consequences than the coronavirus pandemic.
The possibility of accessing education online ensures that Kenya continues to do its part in meeting the fourth of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which aims to, “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” Even though many schools and public universities are yet to offer their classes online, the affordable access to internet allows many Kenyans to do free courses offered in other countries. And even when the courses require some form of payment, M-Pesa allows money transfers abroad, either directly or through PayPal.
Platforms like E-citizen have also allowed Kenyans to continue accessing government services without physically going there. Although these do have their hiccups and are yet to be fine-tuned, at least many businesses and institutions can renew their licences or apply for permits almost as regularly as before the pandemic. The judiciary went online in April and some judges managed to deliver rulings on up to 18 cases a day, helping to speed up many cases which were often marred by delays of a physical nature.
I recently filed my tax returns in under fifteen minutes, all from the comfort of my room, thanks to a secure connection that allowed me access to the Government tax portal, and also thanks to a very useful YouTube video that explained, step by step, how to fill in the rather complex forms.
So as the lockdown measures decrease and more and more Kenyans get accustomed to working online, the development of the country after the pandemic is almost assured. This forced training on how to do a lot with a little, together the proven fact that much can be done with just a laptop or a smartphone and a secure connection, has likened Kenya to a compressed spring waiting to jump out once the lockdown is lifted, hopefully in mid-July.