This is second post about Kenya, focused on the content of our meetings. As mentioned in my previous post, we met government representatives, NGOs/civil society organization, industry leaders and developers networks.
About government, we had 3 different meetings with ministers and parliamentarians. There were some commonalities among these discussions. First of all, it was impressive for me to see people really committed to ICT, and switched on about the potential of the Web for Kenya. The vision of the country they described (e.g. a parliament with people using laptops during the sessions) is promising.
The second interesting point is around the 2 new sea cables (SEACOM and TEAMS). There is a huge hope in this new infrastructure, but for now, everbody is somhow holding their breath and waiting for a revolution to happen … particularly for prices to go down. But for now this is a chicken-and-egg situation: prices are high because users are few, and users are few because prices high.
Tim Berners-Lee explained to them and to industry leaders, including TESPOK, the association of kenyan telecom providers, that to boost things and go for a circle of virtue there is a need for a vision and leadership. There is a need to offer low-cost broadband that will attract new users who in turn discover the power of the Web and talk to their friends or communities, bringing again new customers. So the sea cables are expected to solve many problems, but things have to happen yet.
The third point is around the level of the discussion. There were lots of discussions at a very general level around connecting people to the Web. This is clearly a huge task which may surely needs some prioritizations. For instance, it is essential, in my mind, to assess the major problems, and the biggest potential for the Web in Kenya. For instance, there are 3% roughly of the population suffering from visual impairment. It is therefore essential to focus on ensuring that public and major sites are accessible. Same for mobile technologies: given the current mobile penetration and the issues around power supply, there is a huge probability that the easiest way in the nearest future for people to reach the Web is through mobile. It is therefore essential to examine the situation a level below than just focusing on Web access, and identify the most appropriate technologies which could solve some of the particular challenges the country is facing.
The last point Iwant to mention is around openess, transparency, and releasing open public data. Tim pushed all representatives to work towards releasing their data on the Web, moving form a wish to be transparent, to real actions. We all hope that these seeds Tim put in their minds will florish soon! This is surely an area where the Web Foundation could provide a global leadership.
About research and education, we had only a brief meeting with KENET (Kenya Education NETwork).
Very interesting information about the development of the sea cables, and the penetration of fiber optics. Lots of interest also on their side on Web Science.
About developers, we participated in an event organized by Skunkworks, a network of developers from all over the country. Skunkworks group is particularly focusing on how Kenyans can use technology to improve their lives, and develop local businesses.We missed part the event, but attended three interesting presentations on mobile applications.
The presentation of how Skunworks was created and is developing, and the importance of creating a community that in turns creates emulation among its members was very interesting. This emulation through sharing of ideas among people from all over the country and neighbors leverages potential entrepreneurs, and enable them to create businesses around their ideas. The three presentations were done by such young entrepeneurs.
About NGOs and Civil society organizations. For me, beeing the geek of the Web Foundation, learning what is happening on the field, and what are the challenges was the most interesting part of the visit. We meet with four different organizations:
We learned a lot during these visits. At Plan International, we heard about their initiatives on education and integration of kids from underprivileged communities. There are some commonalities with our project on Youth Empowerment with CDI.
Among the many things we discussed, one of their projects around connecting schools was particularly interesting: connecting through the Web and online tools a school in East Africa, with a scool from Europe or USA. They explained us the impact of such linkages, and also their needs for more easy-to-use tools. They also explained the importance of offering a way for children to express their voices and their feelings about the different situations they have in their daily lives, and the potential of the Web for that purpose. Finally they also underlined the importance of IT skills for employers in Kenya, and therefore their own efforts to deliver even short courses (3 months) to give children such skills.
At the Kenya Society for the Blind, we learned about accessibility in developing countries. W3C has been working for more than 12 years to make the Web accessible for people with disabilities. The work developed within the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is targeting both the Web developer level (standardized guidelines, tools, education and outreach, etc.) and the policy level (ensuring that public policies make mandatory the development of accessible Web sites). The Web Foundation’s Web in Society program has also a strong focus on accessibility. Our objectives with this visit was to have an overview of the relevance of WAI work in the context of developing countries, and to understand if there are particular challenges. In that regards, we learnt lots of very interesting things to incorporate in our programs:
- Accessibility is critical in developing countries, as lots of people have some kinds of disabilities. For instance, in Kenya, we have been told that around 3% of the population suffer from visual impairment.
- Cost of assistive technologies, specifically screen readers and screen magnifiers is a challenging barrier for most of people. The Kenya Society of the Blind has a training center for people with visual impairment to teach them computer skills, including Web access. We had a long discussion with one trainer, and one student (Winston), who explained us the challenges for individuals to buy good screen readers and magnifiers, or to convince potential employers to buy those software, given their costs (at least 1000$US for a good screen reader, and 500$US for a screen magnifier). Both the student and the trainer also reported the relatively low quality of the current leading free and open-source solution NVDA, particularly in the text-to-speech module, and the complete absence of any free screen magnifier.
- Lack of awareness at both the developer and policy makers level on existing technics, standards and tools to make accessible Web sites. There is a big need for awareness raising, and dissemination of information about WAI work, and resources at both the developer and policy makers level.
- Poor accessibility of some major sites like Facebook, or Yahoo mail
This meeting confirmed the importance for the Web Foundation to leverage accessibility as part of its programs, to raise awareness and build capacitites at the local/country level, among developers, public authorities, and major sites/companies (newspaper,etc.), and to invest further in free/low-cost and open source software solutions for most important assistive technologies.
It is also very important to continue promoting acccessibility at the global level, particularly among major sites.
Our third field visit was at Kimathi Information Center, a telecenter in an underprivileged community in the suburb of Nairobi. This project has also some commonalities with our Youth Empowerment project. The aim of this telecenter is to give minimal Web skills to local children and young adults, to enable them to find jobs more easily. This telecenter also integrates training and support for potential entrepreneurs to start their businesses. Jose and Cathryne, the two founders and operators of the telecenter we met explained us the importance of the IT and Web skills to increase the employability of young adults, and to also enable them to start their own business for the community or outside.
Our last visit was at SIDAREC (aka Ghetto FM), where Tim did a live interview, and received also a very nice, very localized present.
We learned about the importance of community radios to address the concerns of local communities, and the importance of the Web to both provide associated services to the community (like online libraries), and to find help from outside Kenya (see the story I wrote about that). Using community radios as a relay to disseminate information available on the Web, and vice-versa, using the Web to get feedback
and involvment from the community in its radio is a powerful model. This is one of the ideas we might explore in the Web Alliance for Re-greening in Africa project.
All in one, as you can see, in three days, we had a quite extensive overview from the different stakeholders in Kenya !
PS: for those who where following us during our visits, you should notice a delay between the posts and the date of the meetings (We were in Kenya from 19 to 22 November). This is due to the incredible agenda we had, not enabling me to find time to write in real time!