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Appropriate Technology Choice

Kenya's tech innovators face many roadblocks

20 October 2009

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Young tech innovators in Kenya have developed new online services that can help address the key challenges faced by the country. But lack of support from institutions and the increasing ICT theft are creating difficulties in the launch of their cell phone applications.

When Morris Mbetsa came up with a number of innovative cell phone applications, little was he prepared to deal with the phenomenal levels of interest his innovations would subsequently generate.

Image credits: cell-phone application system to lock car <br />

Incessant text messages jamming his cell phone and its continual ringing ensured that the 19 year-old hardly had time for himself anymore.

Mbetsa is the teenage Kenyan wonder boy, first thrust into the public limelight last year when he came up with an invention dubbed: Block & Track. This is a car antitheft, cell-phone-enabled system that makes it possible to lock your car using your cell phone.

But Mbetsa is not the only young Kenyan trailing the blaze in a sector which analysts have expressed overwhelming optimism of its continued expansion.

According to ICT experts, innovation in the cell phone sector is the key driving force that is stoking momentum in the industry's growth, not least on the African continent.

More to it than innovation

"The sector is bursting with growth since it has more innovative services offered on a single gadget," said Martin Maina. Maina is yet another youth playing an important, innovative role in the expanding cell phone technology in Kenya.

He invented what he refers to as a menu-driven SMS system for medical practitioners in the country. These medical personnel are increasingly employing the internet to reach their patients.

Maina developed the system for Doctor Online Kenya Limited- an online health service provider in Kenya. This application provides critical medical information to anyone who needs it. Doctor Online Kenya Limited is the only institution providing such an online service countrywide.

"It is the great need to communicate most easily and efficiently, witnessed at this day and age unlike at any other time in history"

According to George Njoroge 27, there is more to the technology than simply innovation. Njoroge founded the East Africa Data Handlers Limited in 2007.

With nine employees and a promising turnover, the company's core business is to recover deleted or lost data such as text messages for clients using cell phone technology.

"It is not innovation in the technology per se that is responsible for this growth. It is the great need to communicate most easily and efficiently, witnessed at this day and age unlike at any other time in history," said Njoroge.

This service does not come cheaply. He charges a premium fee of Ksh 6500 (US$86) per hour for the recovery of lost data.

Njoroge identified an existing need in the Kenyan market that needed urgent addressing. He explained that data recovery services in the country were simply non-existent.

This spurred him on to venture into a hitherto unexplored field- and to good effect. He went on to establish the company, which has since become the unrivalled data recovery firm, not just in Kenya. The company now conducts operations in seven other countries in the region. The East Africa Data Handlers Limited will be reaching out into the South African market soon.

"No one was providing data recovery services in Kenya. There was an existing vacuum in this area, a gap which I thought I could breach," he explained.

The company launched a new product called Ujanja (Swahili for ingenuity) two months ago. It is used to track lost and stolen cell phones as well as laptop computers.

In order to get this service, a client is required to purchase a license from the company that's good for one year. This costs Ksh1999 (US$26) and Ksh 7500 (US$99) for the cell phone and laptop licences respectively.

According to research findings released in early June by the GSM Association (GSMA) that represents the interests of the mobile communications industry, innovation in the sector is quite strong.

The GSMA Mobile Innovation Research showed that this was in sharp contrast to the global economic downturn. As a matter of fact the world's economic problems were cited as catalysts for the growth witnessed in the cell phone industry.

Challenges need to be overcome

On the other hand not every innovator is smiling. Mbetsa for one is a dissatisfied and disillusioned young innovator. He says that he has received absolutely no help from the concerned institutions in the country.

"I thought that I had invented a technology that was really needed because the use of fake documents is a daily occurrence in Kenya. Obviously I was wrong," he complained.

Mbetsa has come up with a cell phone application that can be used to detect fake identity cards, driving licenses and other important documents. He also just invented a digitised hospital system that physicians can use to monitor patients' records anywhere in the world.

According to Alex Gakuru, an ICT expert in Kenya, Mbetsa is targeting the wrong market for his cell phone application products. He says that by targeting the government as the sole consumer of the products, Mbetsa is making a mistake.

"My advice would be that he gives up on high expectations of government support [and] considers repackaging his solution.”

Gakuru adds that Mbetsa should consider re-writing his program so that it appeals to such clients as matatu (public transport vehicle) owners. They can then use it to track their vehicle movements or monitor fuel consumption and calculate the exact fare that passengers should be charged.

"Hosting services are expensive thus locking out great innovations because of lack of funds to launch products"

Many challenges face cell phone innovation in the country. According to one expert, ICT innovation theft is rampant in Kenya. He advises innovators to protect themselves by signing Non-Disclosure Agreements before sharing their innovations.

On the other hand Maina feels that the collaborative link between network service providers and innovators is missing. "Short codes are very expensive and hosting services are also expensive thus locking out great innovations because of lack of funds to launch products," he explained.

He added that the innovator will need to advertise big time, something which will require massive capital. This is money which the vast majority of innovators cannot raise.

Maina maintains that telecom companies in the country are not supportive to innovation and, therefore, relevant guide to developers about connection to their gateways is missing. This makes most developers rely on the internet for the service.

"This is not easy to do," he observed.

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