Things change quickly here. It’s seven years since I’ve been to East Africa, but even in 2003, things were moving quickly.
My first visit was as a greenhorn 21-year-old, working for a tiny Tanzanian NGO.
Those two months were among the most isolated of my life. Internet access was sparing and expensive, but fast where it existed. I wrote emails home in rough form on a .txt file, and took a floppy disc to the local internet cafe to copy and paste it home. Mobile phones were non-existent. Land lines were appallingly bad, and exorbitantly priced for international calls. This was pre-Skype, if you can imagine that. Shocking stuff.
Just two years later, in 2003, I came back for a sailing event sponsored by Safaricom, Vodafone’s Kenyan guise. I arrived in Arusha this time, to catch up with those I had met the time before, and cadged a lift to Nairobi and on to the coast with another competitor, Rob Allport.
Rob worked with the Maasai as a vet, and we picked up a hitchhiker in red Maasai robes to give him a lift en route to Nairobi. During the detour, I saw another Maasai man sitting squatly on a rock on the side of the road. He was draped in the same tartan-like robes and held a dark herding stick in his left hand as he gazed out over his animals. With his right hand, just as we passed, he dipped inside his robes, and pulled out a Nokia 5110, and proceeded to check his text messages.
In two years, Kenya & Tanzania had gone from being a land of paltry phone connection for the average person to being one where every man who could count goats was hooked up to the grid.
In the seven years since, things have sped up further. The two main operators in Kenya, Safaricom and Zain, are locked in a bitter mobile phone price war, and smartphone growth in East Africa is at rates not seen anywhere in the world. Phones ping constantly, ubiquitously. The average Kenyan spends 25 per cent of their disposable income on communication, and do their banking, pay bills and open savings accounts using their mobile phones (the largest phone operator became the biggest deposit-taking bank almost overnight when they introduced a service called M-Kesho, allowing phone users put small amounts of money aside for a rainy day). Ireland was once the global leader for mobile payments. Now it’s Kenya.
Vodafone now use Kenya as a testing ground for new developments. If it can work well in Kenya, the thinking goes, it will work anywhere.
GPRS internet coverage for phones now extends deep into rural areas. Komaza, the sustainable forestry NGO who I’m currently visiting, hope to use simple phone internet forms to allow farmers send instant alerts for crop infestations. For example, when a farmer sees an insect problem, their Komaza facilitator can take a geotagged photo of the infestation, and email it back to HQ, where they’ll identify the insect, contact the local sprayer with directions to the exact tree and information on what chemical and concentration to use to treat the outbreak. This means the gap between identification and treatment can be reduced from a week or ten days to just 24 hours.
If you track the difference in connectivity in those first two years, then the following seven, Kenya’s jump is pretty impressive. They’re on a par with Ireland in some ways, ahead in many others. Check back on Kenya in ten years more, and you’ll be staring into the future.
Markham is on a prolonged journey through Kenya and Tanzania partly funded by a Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund grant. Editors/producers looking to contact Markham for material or contributions from Kenya should email markham [dot] nolan [at] gmail [dot] com, or text +254 732 580 147.
PS: Click through to expad.ie/map to follow Markham’s Simon Cumbers Journey in a Google Map.