[Opinion] For Kenya, Smart Cities will Remain a Pipe Dream

By  |  October 12, 2019

Kenya has been hailed as a “progressive” country spearheading sectors in technology such as mobile money payments. This perception has seen foreign companies set up their African base in Nairobi to cash in on the technology trends.  Companies such as Bolt, Uber and Glovo have seen their decision to set up in Nairobi pay dividends.

In many reports, Kenya has been hailed as one of the cities in Africa that could transform into a smart city. One of the reasons is the digitization of payments using mobile money. The country has been on a torpid journey to create Konza Technocity, another digitally-driven city.

However, the journey to transform cities such as Nairobi into a smart region is quickly being hampered by archaic legislation and uninformed government directives.

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), “A smart sustainable city is an innovative city that uses information and communication technologies (ICTs) and other means to improve quality of life, efficiency of urban operation and services, and competitiveness, while ensuring that it meets the needs of present and future generations with respect to economic, social, environmental as well as cultural aspects”.

In the wake of the ban issued on bus booking and hailing services Little Shuttle and Swvl by the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA), Kenya has stepped away from ITU’s definition of a smart sustainable city.

The NTSA and the Nairobi county government have tried to reign in on the chaos in the transport industry. The choked bus stops, the taut jams and fluctuating transport prices have danced on the grave of “good intent” policies for many years.

Just like the cab-hailing services, the use of data can curb the lopsided transport industry, giving efficient services to commuters and maximising profits for operators by minimising resource quaff.

In as much as the National Transport and Safety Authority’s efforts have been to bring sanity to the motoring world, it has failed to curb the chaos in the transport industry. Its attempts to bring in digital fare payments failed miserably in 2014 and there might be no plans to resurrect that dream.

It has also tried to bring a scheduling order in the city’s bus terminus to no avail. But with Little Shuttle and Swvl, fare payment and scheduling have been solved with a click of a button. These two companies are also gathering crucial data on the movement of Kenyans in and out Nairobi.

Such data plans could bring insight into what ails the industry. However, it will be long before we see the use of technology and data to streamline this sector, by the government itself. Only private businesses can enable the collection of anonymised data to quell the chaos of transportation.

Where are the policies?

I am not talking about policies that are launched with fanfare and quickly discarded. The government has been in the past year busy releasing tech reports. However, its intentions to ensure the plans materialise is not felt strong enough.

The government cannot continue to chime that “we wait for innovation then we legislate it.” We already know where the world is moving to. AI, Data use and protection and payments. All of these neo-innovations are changing legislations all around the world and the African continent cannot be the stick in the mud.

In its recent report on creating a digital economy, the Kenyan government admittedly said that smart city development needs the support of relevant laws.

 “One of the fundamental policies needed is a National ICT Policy. This should harmonise across multiple sectors, within departments and governments, local and federal alike. It should be comprehensive, covering a range of areas, including unified communications; open data; privacy and integrity of information; infrastructure sharing and reuse; plus IT policies like department managing and maintaining openness across software interfaces; refreshing of IT legacy equipment; security; and more,” the Digital Economy Blueprint said.

It added that “There is a need to create a reliable and objective framework relating to issues such as liability regulations and copyright law as well as fair competition.”

I do agree with this portion: “This ICT policy should align with the national priorities of the country and provide a measurable plan to enable everyone to participate in the digital economy and reap its benefits”.

However, these reports seem to be “wishes on a well”. It is time the government acts like it has a digital policy in place and stops pussyfooting on the ICT agendas.

Retracting from improving services using digital tools, poor implementation of ICT programmes such as the Huduma Number roll out will ensure that the country doesn’t proceed with its national digital blueprint. It will only be a pipe dream.

Feature Image: Konza Technopolis Design. Courtesy: Konza.go.ke

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