Kenya rolls out digital villages project

The first Digital Villages are expected to go online by the end of June

Kenya on Tuesday kicked off an ambitious Digital Villages project designed to connect the whole country, from rural to urban areas, and accelerate growth of information communication technology (ICT).

The project is a government and private-sector initiative, mapped out using political districts. Every constituency represented in Parliament will get a minimum of eight workstations, either PCs or monitors hooked to PCs, grouped within a 15-kilometre radius.

The first Digital Villages are expected to go online by the end of June. The Ministry of Youth Affairs' Youth Enterprise Fund (YEF) is financing the project, rolling it out in 40 constituencies before moving to other areas. The experiences of the first constituencies will inform implementation in other areas.

Telecommunication costs and the need to develop local content and software applications will challenge the initiative, but officials have high hopes.

"Each Digital Village will have a VSAT base station and will be expected to form the basis for e-commerce in the country," said Bitange Ndemo, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication.

Ndemo expects young entrepreneurs to borrow from the YEF. The Ministry of Youth Affairs is financing private microfinance institutions, and prospective businesspeople are expected to invest at least 100,000 Kenyan shillings (US$1,550) to set up a "digital village" with two PCs. The ministry says it will provide training in entrepreneurship, and the microfinance institutions have existing training programs.

The project will have far-reaching effects for online activities in agriculture, health, education and commerce, according to Ndemo. For example, instead of nurses and doctors from rural areas going to the city for education, the project can deliver the courses online.

Remote hospitals have not been attractive to doctors and nurses because opportunities for career development there are limited. With the online courses, the remote hospitals may be more attractive.

The major contribution to the health sector will be the ability to deliver health services to remote areas through online consultation. With the computer and Internet connectivity, a doctor can take a photo, scan it, and send it to a doctor in the referral hospital for expert opinion.

The plan has some critics. Joseph Kamau, a 22-year-old Nairobi businessman, does not think the project will benefit relatives who live in a village. He argues that most people walk long distances to the hospital and may not have the time to wait until a local doctor's e-mail is answered.

Ndemo argues that once people get used to Digital Village technology, they will design appropriate mechanisms to make it a success.

"There is the simple but horrible truth that most people in the US and Europe never think about Africans," Ndemo said. "Digital villages open up international communications. The people cease to be invisible. Well-made items that seem exotic and come from a village are hot consumer items in upscale fashion stores in the US."

The Internet will be used to sell all sorts of items made by people in the village to supplement farming income, Ndemo added.

This argument was supported by David Owino from Kenya Data Networks (KDN), a private sector project partner, who argued that the project will spur competition and innovation between rural and urban areas in Kenya.

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