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Innovating for the People: How Africa is using Technology for Better Governance.

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This post is the forth and last article in a four-part series on Africa: The Present Frontier.

On his first day in office, US President Barrack Obama signed the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government start the process that led to the we know today. Within 3 years, other governments had followed suit around the world with many attempting to do it and others getting past the hurdles to finally launch. The first one in Africa to start the process and deploy an open data portal was Kenya. Other countries are expected to follow suit in the coming months and years.

Liberia Business Registry

The Liberia Business Registry which provides an online platform for business registration. Image source:

The story of governance in Africa though punctuated by war, coups de etat and not-so-democratic elections is also full of stories of democratic progress and innovation. Technology is playing a role on the demand side of governance with citizens taking to technology platforms to amplify their opinions and demand better services from governments. It’s playing a big role on the supply side as well with governments adopting e-government and making progress along the path to open government and turning Africa into an attractive place to live in and do business.

The IFC in its Doing Business report for 2012 found that every single East African country had made at least one reform aimed at making them an attractive investment destination. Areas such as electronic submission of documents for businesses establishing a presence are important for governments in the East African Community. Sadly, despite the reforms, the 2012 Doing Business ranking show only 2 out of 5 of the EAC states improved their rankings with all the others dropping between 2 and 4 places from 2011. Rwanda remains the 3rd best country to do business on the continent after Mauritius and South Africa at its current 45th position in the rankings. Kenya, at 109, is ranked better than Nigeria, Brazil and India.

The improvements in the EAC have resulted in stronger legal institutions but maintained expensive regulatory processes. However, as these governments implement e-government initiatives and make progress along their respective roadmaps, the costs for businesses and individuals where interactions with government are concerned will reduce and play a role in improving the business environment in the region. This is key to creating employment, reducing poverty, improving the quality of life and growing a country’s GDP. Here are some examples of how countries in the region are using technology to serve citizens and protect the gains made in opening up the democratic space and improving the business environment.

  • Kenya Revenue Authority’s (KRA) Portal. Interacting the revenue authority almost always meant a great deal of standing in line and loss of valuable man-hours lost. This created an environment for intermediaries and corruption to thrive resulting in the loss of millions of dollars in revenue every year. The authority implemented a series of measures to make customs, excise and value-added-tax processes convenient, less costly and more water tight through an online platform resulting in a level playing field for business and less citizens standing in line for days to get things done. It also put those pesky ‘brokers’ hanging around government offices offering to ‘help’ out of business.
  • Tanzania Revenue Authority e-Filing and mPayments. In a move that created a new precedent in Government to Citizen (G2C) services in sub-Sahara Africa, the Tanzania tax authority implemented a mobile payments tax system which makes it unnecessary for citizens to visit their offices to pay taxes.
  • Rwanda Mobile-enabled Driving license applications. In an effort to reduce the amount of time it takes to apply for a driving license in Rwanda, the government introduced a mobile-enabled service that allows citizens to send a text message to the platform and receive a registration number, the first step in the process, cutting the process from 4 months to 45 days.
  • Liberia’s Online Company Registry. Liberia’s company registry allows citizens to register a business without having to make trips to government offices usually a standard practice with this bureacractic process.

While some have already done so, a number of countries in sub-Sahara Africa are on the path to introducing electronic lands registries, integrated financial management systems and electronic business registration in an effort to improve service delivery in their government to government (G2G) interactions and G2C / G2B services.

The old Africa is almost no more. There’s a new Africa emerging. One where stronger institutions exist, better legislation, transparency and citizen participation in governance is the norm. The new Africa is here.

Bringing Social Objects to Citizen Empowerment

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Sparking conversations among citizens is the first step to creating change. 

Kenyans woke up to a pleasant surprise one March morning. Graffiti with a political message sprayed on walls in Nairobi’s central business district. And not the terrible kind that is an eye-sore with good intentions. This was “stop-and-stare”  graffiti that not only made news in Kenya but overseas as well.

Image: The Guardian (click to read more)


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Written by Muchiri Nyaggah

April 10th, 2012 at 10:33 am

Corporate Big Data Should Team Up With Public Open Data

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Kenya Open Data

Kenya's open data portal at

In the early days of the Obama administration, the idea of open data was transitioned from lofty ideal to a reality pushing huge amounts of government-held data onto public portals. What started in the US, however, became a global process. Many governments have since committed themselves to provide data to their citizens through similar portals and to abide by the principles of open government.

This coming June, Kenya will celebrate one year of open data and a portal that has grown to over 220 datasets and a total of 500 data elements (datasets, documents, charts etc). A number of interesting mobile and web apps have been created that utilize the data such as MedAfrica. Although there have been signs of some cool apps, the number of apps I expected one year on haven’t quite materialized. However, 12 months is a short time and the next couple of years could very well see the rise of novel applications and highly innovative ways of communicating public data to citizens or using it to add value to commercial apps.

Now that the government is publishing data online and will continue to do so as legislation is enacted to further reinforce this, what’s next? I say MORE DATA. Not just government data. It’s time for corporate big data to join the party. The private sector has a wealth of data gathered everyday from citizens around the country. The level of intelligence contained in corporate data is so vast, fresh and detailed I’m certain the staff at the national bureau of statistics salivate at the thought of getting their hands on it. So do local small businesses and start-ups. Although the data held by a single corporate entity on its customers may be detailed and extremely valuable, it becomes even more valuable when taken together with data from other corporate entities. Taken together with public open data, this data is priceless.

Corporate open data could have immense impact on consumer/citizen facing organizations in both for-profit and non-profit sectors. Here are some possibilities that come to mind

  1. Banking data e.g. insights into average deposit size by county, number of business accounts, penetration of banking services by geographic location and population (percentage of population with bank accounts).
  2. Consumer goods sales e.g data on consumption of goods by location, trends, average price of most popular product type.
  3. Telecommunications e.g. Airtime sales by location, average size of airtime purchase, average call length by location, average number of text messages per person by location, number of subscribers accessing the internet via mobile or via other devices etc
  4. Disease prevalence e.g. data from private healthcare facilities could provide additional information on number of cases diagnosed by disease, location and trends beyond the diseases that are most commonly observed at public facilities.

In an age where information is king, helping communities empower themselves and turn their fortunes around requires access to the right information. Information that allows them to understand why their counties attract low investment, or whether they have the infrastructure to leverage for economic development, or what their political leaders can do to improve their quality of life. The answers to these and many other questions lie not just in government data but in corporate data as well.

Empowering citizens to become more active in their own governance is a key principle of open government and one which open data reinforces well. Empowered citizens make empowered customers and (I’m pretty certain) makes for good business somehow. It is possible that corporate social responsibility on this side of the industrial age may include providing data to the public that could help them change their world. Isn’t that a possibility East African businesses should consider investing in just as their governments are doing?

Written by Muchiri Nyaggah

March 19th, 2012 at 7:49 pm

Government Services Intermediation: The New Role for Cybercafes.

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A Pasha Center in Mbumbuni, Mbooni East, Kenya.

A Pasha center in rural Kenya.

Mbumbuni is a rural market town in Kenya’s Mbooni East District approximately 120km from Nairobi. Within the market is one of the Kenya ICT Board supported Pasha Centers and probably one of the best equiped cybercafes I have seen. When I visited the area in August of 2011, the 3G signal was poor and the center was using a GSM router connecting via EDGE to provide access to clients. The resulting experience was of course poor. For the residents in the area, the next cybercafe with a good connection is in Masii 8km away or in Wote town 50km away. For anyone wishing to register with the tax authority (a prerequisite to opening a bank account), a working cybercafe is the primary mode of accessing the authority’s online portal. There is no way of obtaining the registration at a KRA office. Cybercafes and Pasha centers charge an average of Ksh150 and as high as KSh250 to help clients complete the process and only a per minute charge for those savvy enough to login and do it themselves. For the residents of Mbumbuni, the Pasha center is their first option. Other options are guaranteed to be more expensive.

In the last four months I have travelled to parts of Kenya I only read about. Some of them almost 600 km away from Nairobi and others just an hours drive away. I have seen places where cybercafés are doing great and others where they are struggling to stay open.  The landscape is varied but inspiring. Our estimates put the number of cybercafes in Kenya at approximately 2,500 most of them concentrated in the more densely populated parts of the country. Although statistics show a growing number of Internet users (35% of the population at last count), the vast number appear to be using their mobile phone as their primary gateway. Although feature phones can now provide 3G Internet access, play music and take pictures they still can’t print, scan or edit documents. With very low PC penetration in the country the rational decision is to therefore default to cybercafes for these tasks and others not yet available on mobile. Such as eGovernment.

A sign advertising KRA Pin application services

A sign at a cyber in rural Kenya

The move by government departments and agencies such as the Kenya Revenue Authority to port services onto online spaces and then discontinue offline provision can be seen as a sign of progress. However, in using eGovernment to scale services fast across large areas at low cost, new barriers to access emerge. Digital barriers and cost barriers. These barriers have created new opportunities for cybercafé owners and Pasha center entrepreneurs allowing them to charge for a service that didn’t exist only a couple of years ago. The cyber café has now acquired a new role as an intermediary to government services introducing with it new costs of intermediation.

Whereas eGovernment presents a new opportunity for private enterprise in the form of new intermediation services, the government still needs to find ways of encouraging telcos to deploy better last mile connectivity (3G, LTE) to rural places where the financial investment may not achieve ROI in the short term. If poor connectivity remains a problem, the services may not be any closer to the people than they were before when the residents of Mbumbuni and Masii had to travel to Machakos, Wote or even Nairobi to get government services. In my opinion, there are three areas the Directorate of eGovernment and other actors in the space may consider giving priority as Kenya marches on into a fully digital future.

Better connectivity. Better 3G or LTE connectivity for the last mile to the cybercafes located in rural areas is a good place to start. Providing better connectivity could trigger consumption of data as people find utility for it. In places such as Maai Mahiu and Isinya we heard from a couple of people how frustrating spotty connections are. In Isinya, 40km from the city of Nairobi, residents opt to travel to Kajiado town or Kitengela rather than endure the local cybercafe’s unreliable connections.

Pricing Interventions / Guidelines. When intermediation services become high enough to become a bona fide barrier to access, there’s a problem. Ksh250 is enough to feed a family of four for a day or two. In areas where government services are only available online, this could mean that some families opt out of crucial government services they shouldn’t be having to do without. The initial premise is to bring services closer to the people. High financial costs neuter that objective. Introduction of price caps that keep it financially interesting for enterpreneurs to provide access to these services while remaining accessible to the majority of the people maybe an option worthy of some consideration.

Design for mGovernment. 24 million mobile devices are hard to ignore. Policy guidelines that allows government departments to design and deploy services on the mobile platform should be a priority in the short term. If bringing services closer to citizens is a priority, the mobile handset is as close as it can get.

As new formal intermediaries to government services begin to emerge with the rollout of new infrastructure and services, governments need to keep everyone in the ecosystem on the same page. Cybercafe owners need to remain motivated to provide the services, government departments need to create and train technical and customer care teams and citizens need to be educated on how to access and utilize these services.

Regulation & Innovation – The Challenge for Governments

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An M-Pesa shop in Masii, Kenya.

An M-Pesa shop in Masii, Kenya.

During the Internet Governance Forum conference held in Nairobi last September, Kenya’s head for e-Government Dr. Catherine Getao made an observation that probably holds very true in many places worldwide. Private sector innovations can happen in the absence of government policy but in many instances government can’t implement innovation in service delivery until legislation and policy is in place. This was in response to a comment I had made on the disparity between the rate of innovation adoption by government when compared to the private sector and the citizens.

Mobile money in Kenya provides a fairly good example of this. M-Pesa is not directly regulated under a full banking license but operates under a special dispensation from industry regulators. At public roll-out,  the MPesa service allowed urban Kenyans, for instance, to send money easily and more safely to their rural folk. Service providers then implemented utility payments via mobile money and integration of mobile money with conventional banking services. Within 3 years, firms like PesaPal and iPay had emerged  providing a bridge between mobile money and e-commerce.  Services  in this space are continuing to evolve every year.

Although I can send money, pay utility bills, buy goods and check my bank balance through my mobile phone, I still can’t pay government fees, taxes or levies on it. I still have to go to a bank like I did 5 years ago. Hence Dr Gitau’s comment alluding to the delay caused by the (usually long) wait for development of legislation to guide government adoption of new technology for service delivery.

So whereas mobile money was launched and has continued to evolve in an environment where regulation and policy was yet to be fully developed, the government was unable to leverage this technological gains for its own good. Mobile money in Kenya is a good example of how innovation preceding regulation can be good for the country. Although governments can create an environment for phenomenal progress (like Kenya’s has done), their inability to keep up with the momentum triggered by the private sector for service delivery (due to bureaucracy) is an example of how innovation preceding regulation can slow progress in eGovernance.

This is where the challenge lies for those designing the next generation of eGov services as well as the agencies/departments seeking to improve service delivery through ICT. A highly collaborative multi-stakeholder approach is, in my opinion, necessary to not only accelerate the rate of innovation but the speed at which governance frameworks evolve to cater for the emerging ‘new normal’.


Written by Muchiri Nyaggah

December 27th, 2011 at 10:31 am


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