Connecting Kenya: A Conversation with Bitange Ndemo

Last month, PCI’s Kristin Little and Sarah Wright spoke with Bitange Ndemo about his pivotal role connecting Kenya to the Internet and his work today furthering open access to data. 

Ndemo is known as a pioneer for Internet access in Kenya. He led the establishment of TEAMS, the fiber optic cable system from Mombasa to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates, linking Kenya to the rest of the world. The history of the effort to create TEAMS, it turns out, relied on government investment and trust for Ndemo’s vision. 

When Ndemo started working with the Kenyan government in 2005, Internet connectivity was not yet top of mind. It took him pushing then-president Mwai Kibaki to invest in the infrastructure that would eventually make connectivity ubiquitous in the East African nation. 

“Then, most governments in Africa hadn’t thought about ICT and about what role it would play in development,” Ndemo said. “I was jokingly telling them that I watched the movie, ‘Field of Dreams,’ which said, ‘If you build it, they will come.’”

Because the World Bank-funded project to connect Kenya—the East African Submarine Cable System (EASSy)—was moving too slowly, Ndemo decided to forge his own path, supported by private-public partnerships he had built on a visit to the United Arab Emirates. 

With a 15 percent investment from UAE telecommunications company Etisalat, Ndemo got to work wading through a lengthy approval process and six months of procuring the cable. Two years later, in June 2009, the cable was in, and all of a sudden, Kenya’s 41 million residents had access to terabytes of data. 

I looked into the eyes of the president and I said, ‘I have never let you down. I will not let you down, but with this, I will build you a legacy.'

—Bitange Ndemo

Ndemo said President Kibaki’s role in expediting and approving the project at each step of the way was critical to its success, and so too was trusting Ndemo’s vision. But even with the cable in the ground, he could not yet relax.

“I was worried, terribly worried, that everybody was going to say I built a white elephant,” Ndemo said. “That nobody was going to use it.”

So, to ensure the success of his project, Ndemo approached the World Bank and asked them to subsidize broadband prices to all institutions of higher learning, both public and private. Next was to subsidize laptops to every university student. Finally, he sought permission from the government to use sets of public data to create the Kenya Open Data Initiative. 

Ndemo said he never expected that last request to be approved. Storing government data outside of the country was in violation of the Official Secrets Act, a British colonial legislation that was still valid in Kenya. But Kibaki allowed him to store Kenya’s data in San Francisco where the data centers were superior.

An attempt by some cabinet members to stop the open data initiative failed when he directly addressed the president. “I looked into the eyes of the president and I said, ‘I have never let you down. I will not let you down, but with this, I will build you a legacy,” Ndemo said. 

Ndemo is the first to admit his intentions were not purely selfless. He had come from the university system and knew just how meaningful expanded access to data would be for his fellow researchers as well as young developers who needed data to create new solutions. 

And he was right: The research network model, getting universities, students, and researchers online first, was so successful in Kenya because it opened doors and gave researchers previously unimaginable capacity and access to data. The implications were widespread, across science and technology, and beyond, creating efficiencies like never before. 

Working where public and private partners are united has a huge advantage, Ndemo said, because private companies ordinarily do not take big infrastructural risks without being sure of payoff. 

“They needed the government to take the risk, and that is what I did,” Ndemo said. 

It is because of Ndemo’s work and those who followed in his footsteps that today, in Kenya, Internet connectivity is widespread. Every county has a fiber access network, and at least 85 percent of people have access to 4G. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it was that widespread connectivity that allowed the country to go cashless and switch to mobile payments only. Ndemo was part of the effort to remove any charges for money transfers during the pandemic, which he said is key to equity. Taxing broadband and devices, Ndemo said, affects the poorest residents most deeply, because most people use their mobile phones for financial transactions. When the Kenyan government decided to remove all duties and taxes from devices for two years, Internet usage and access increased dramatically. 

“My argument is that broadband should be a human rights issue,” Ndemo said. 

Ndemo is not done helping the Kenyan government innovate. He’s currently leading their artificial intelligence and blockchain efforts, and, after finishing an initial report, is looking at how to apply the ideas they uncover, including how to help foster the use of artificial intelligence in education. 

His biggest advice to the next generation of Kenyans is to not let their country or their neighbors miss out on the fourth industrial revolution. He’s even working on a new book on it — part of his lifelong effort to share his knowledge and expertise.

Ndemo publishes a periodic column in Business Daily Africa. You can read his latest here.

Posted in Access & Connectivity, Policy & Governing and tagged , , .

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