Bitange Ndemo is a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi School of Business, and the former Permanent Secretary of Kenya’s Ministry for Information and Communication. It was in this position that he presided over many of the technological and social advances that have made his country into one of the most influential centres of ICT innovation in Africa. A prolific commentator on modern Kenya, he shares his outspoken and incisive views on his Daily Nation blog, amongst other places. In addition, he will be a keynote speaker at eLearning Africa 2014. The News team caught up with him to get his views on the future for Africa’s youth, and more.
What do you see as Africa’s major assets in the modern world, and how will it gain the full benefit of them?
Africa’s major asset is the youth. Many countries are spending a huge portion of their budgets on education. We have youth making up more than 70% of the population in a world where majority of countries have more old people than youth. This is a great opportunity but we must learn to exploit it just like China did. The more reason why we need to re-skill the youth and prepare them for a tomorrow where they will be required to produce for the world.
The theme of eLearning Africa is “Opening Frontiers to the Future”. How are you going to address this theme in your keynote speech?
ICTs have reduced the world into a small village where research from advanced countries is fusing with problems in the developing world and coming up with innovations. We have had no time like this in the history of the world. We must seize the opportunity and change the course of humanity for the better. Organisations like IBM have based research in Africa, where many problems reside, and come up with solutions that will change the future. IBM’s Watson supercomputer is likely to help sort out problems of food insecurity, disease and many more problems. But we must wake up to take the opportunity to the next level.
Kenya is at the forefront of ICT innovation in Africa, yet 43.4% of the population remains below the poverty line (CIA). How can ICT best be used to benefit the poorest?
ICTs are changing the grassroots landscape in most African countries, including Kenya. Rural innovations are creating jobs, enhancing efficiency, improving productivity and enabling greater financial inclusiveness.
In Kenya mobile money has not only created jobs in rural areas but enabled many to make savings and access credit through mobile banking. Other applications like iCow are helping dairy farmers access information leading to greater productivity. More money that used to be kept under mattresses is now in circulation in remote parts of the country, enabling micro-enterprises to grow and create more jobs.
In the future, with data analytics, farmers will be in a better position to predict patterns of rainfall and optimise the outcomes of their farming.
What do you think of Kenya’s National ICT Master Plan – what major benefits will it bring, or are its goals currently overambitious?
It is important that people understand the policy direction of the government. It makes them more aware of their rights by providing a road map and seeking views from the public to participate and become part of the process. It will for example, ensure that every citizen has access to broadband.
Citizens already know what to do with broadband as we have seen with mobile money, agricultural price information or just health tips. Automating our entire registry will significantly reduce corruption, improve on efficiencies and enable the government to collect more money and hopefully reduce taxes. Our Master Plan is therefore not an ambitious document, but a road map to see that ICTs contribute more to GDP than agriculture.
You have written that what Kenya needs is more students learning the necessary skills. How do you think that online learning could combine with practical training to address the skills gap?
We have spent many years trying to focus on theory and hoping that it will translate to skills. This is a false belief. Countries that are successful have a strong skills development programme – Germany, for example. It was able to survive the recent financial meltdown because many of its citizens have skills to sustain them even in difficult times.
In Kenya, whilst there are many jobs, there is widespread unemployment because the youth lack the skills. This problem can be solved if online content in all trades, including soft skills, is widely accessible.
Many youth are known to shun vocational training in favour of nonexistent white collar jobs. There is a need to encourage the youth to take up blue collar skills that offer many opportunities for training.
Do you feel that English should be maintained and taught in Africa as a language of transnational understanding, or is it time for mother languages to become dominant?
We have no choice but accept that we must be proficient in at least one language. That language must be English given the fact that most of our languages remained static in a dynamic world where new words emerge every other day. Whereas it is important that we maintain our languages, we must ensure that we are fully conversant with a dynamic language like English for us to remain relevant in a very competitive world.
How can the creation of local online content in Africa be encouraged?
The demand for local content is there. The problem is that not many countries are willing to develop it. The creative economy is big business. It contributes to more than 60% of California’s budget. This should be enough motivation: but it seems that only Nigerians have understood how to monetise local content.
We must create ambassadors of the creative economy to encourage more youth to have an interest. Personalities like Oscar winner Lupita Nyon’go should be facilitated to encourage many more others. There are virtually no edutainment firms in Africa yet we know children learn better from visuals. Facebook’s SocialEDU will need lots of content. We must encourage many more youth to consider this emerging lucrative sector.
What sort of challenges did you face as Permanent Secretary of the Kenyan Ministry for Information and Communication, and how did you overcome them?
Working for government is in itself a challenge, simply because the citizens in most cases have no trust. There is a sea of selfish people with only a few whose real interest is self-sacrifice for the sake of their country. As a most senior civil servant in a Ministry, you have to balance these divergent interests, mostly by being understanding to those with selfish intentions and supportive of those wanting to see change and greater economic improvement in their country.
Overcoming these problems is difficult but it is critical to establish a level of trust and work towards genuinely enhancing it. This starts from the immediate colleagues that work with you on a day to day basis.
Challenges come from all corners: political, economic and social. Whichever way they may come from, one must be truthful to oneself. I was able to take greater risks because I had a fallback position at the University.