Eliud Owalo

The new ICT Cabinet Secretary Eliud Owalo sets the stage

By John Walubengo.

Last week the nominee for the position of ICT Cabinet Secretary, Mr. Eliud Owalo finally took his seat on the hot chair to face the parliamentary vetting committee to make his case and justify why he is fit for office.

As a professional economist and strategist, it was obvious that he was going to hit the right tone as he laid out his plans for the ICT ministry. Some of the issues that stood out included the nexus between ICT and economic transformation, ICTs in the public sector, and ICTs in the private or industry sector.

ICT & economic transformation.
It is an established fact that organisations that leverage on ICTs tend to have a competitive edge over their peers. They are able to do more, and with fewer resources, they are able to realize efficiency gains and exploit additional digital opportunities not available to their peers.

The challenge has been how these obvious benefits everybody can see at an organizational level, cannot be scaled out to national levels. If all our SMEs adopted and leveraged ICTs in their day-to-day operations, then cumulatively, Kenya as a nation should be able to compete against its global peers in terms of generating affordable products and services for the export market.

The truth of the matter is that Kenya, despite its relatively sophisticated ICT infrastructure, continues to struggle to compete with its less privileged neighbors in terms of basic exports in non-traditional ICT domains like agriculture, manufacturing, and education amongst other sectors.

Is the new Minister for ICT, given his business and strategic background going to crack this puzzle for Kenya? How to mainstream ICTs beyond ‘M-PESA’ or mobile money levels that we have so rightly celebrated, but are NOT, by itself, sufficient to make Kenya an ICT-driven economy.

ICT in the public sector.
This brings us to ICTs in the public sector discussion. Government is the biggest buyer of ICT services in most advanced economies. US, Israel, Korea, and even India buy local software solutions, use them, improve them, and package the same for the export market as software services or ICT engineering products.

The incoming ministers talk of a ‘paperless government’, which in turn implies a higher uptake of automated solutions for government operations.

Contrary to expectations, the UN, 2022 eGovernment Index places Kenya at number 10 in Africa and number 113 in the world in terms of public sector automation

I am tempted to say that without the COVID-19-related digital bump’ that saw many public sector organizations adopt ICTs, our ranking may have been much lower. The public sector’s low adoption of ICTs is a question that comes out of a mix of factors that range from resistance to change, and lack of ICT champions at parastatal /government departmental levels, all the way to outright corruption.

I still wonder and struggle to understand why we have been automating the Ministry of Lands operations over, ever since I started tracking government ICT-related policy and projects over the last twenty years.

It remains to be seen if the new CS for ICT is going to crack this puzzle and stop the endless investments in ICT systems by the public sector when civil servants – other than Wanjiku – know that the main driver for some of these ICT projects is the procurement billions, rather than improved service through automation.

ICTs in the industry.
Finally, the incoming CS mentioned something about the ICT industry being dominated by two or three giants and promised to look into the issue – especially given his previous consulting work at the Competition Authority.

This is a very dicey issue and puts the key regulators, namely the Communication Authority of Kenya, the Competition Authority of Kenya, and the Data Commissioner Office into focus.

Whereas in economic terms, more competition means more choice, more affordable prices, and better products and services for the consumer, it also has the flip side of the need to grow our ‘own’ monopolies in order to take on and compete with other global monopolies in the digital space.

The likes of Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Ali Baba, and Huawei amongst others are in practice though not in law, monopolies, and their ‘parent’ governments are not complaining. Indeed some are directly supported, and sustained as monopolies at home, as a way of giving them leverage to pivot out and command the global ICT stage.

How the new minister navigates this question – and I am not saying he should not – could actually make or break the current and future direction of the ICT industry.

John Walubengo is an ICT Lecturer and Consultant. @jwalu.

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