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Gates Foundation Supports Tech in Kenya Despite Political Turmoil

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta (left) and Melinda Gates. Photo: Presidential Strategic Communication Unit

Brace yourselves; developing countries are on the verge of a technological revolution. This was the overarching message when Melinda Gates, the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, launched Pathways for Prosperity, a commission on technology and inclusive development in Nairobi, Kenya.

The commission is tasked with exploring how emerging technologies can create economic opportunities in the developing world. The use of technological innovations that the commission is investigating is at a nascent stage in Kenya.

Use of artificial intelligence (AI), big data, robotics, automation, and nanotechnology, among other technologies, is expected to stir inclusive growth and improve governance across the developing world. Gates says the “commission gives us a way of working together to understand how to harness technology for good.”

Pathways for Prosperity will hold meetings worldwide over the next two years, with each session exploring different thematic issues and countries.

The visit comes months after the Kenyan president was re-elected in a bitter campaign that is still being disputed by opposition leader Raila Odinga. Progress in Kenya, which has been held up as a positive example for democracy in the region, may now slow as the government cracks down on its opposition and shuts down major broadcasters..

The initiative ties in with President Uhuru Kenyatta’s twin pet projects, the Digital Literacy Program, which aims to integrate the use of digital technologies in learning, and Ajira Digital, the first multi-sectoral initiative by the Kenyan government that aims to introduce youths to the concept of online work.

The first phase of the Digital Literacy Program cost an estimated $166 million and saw the government distribute about one million tablets to public schools and train 95,000 teachers nationwide on the devices. The computers were fitted with MsingiPACK software, which is a comprehensive e-learning solution for primary schools. The next phase of the program will see all public primary schools connected to a fiber optic network to ensure internet connectivity.

Ajira Digital is a government project funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, which is currently training over 10,000 youths on online work in 21 centers set up across the country. The program hopes to ride on Kenya’s high internet connectivity to help youth tap online work opportunities. The country’s Communication Authority of Kenya (CAK) estimates internet penetration to be at 89 percent.

Technical and financial collaboration is already yielding results. A shot in the arm by the commission through funding and technological skills transfer could therefore unlock an economic boon for the country and the wider sub-Saharan region. For instance, recent partnership between University of Nairobi and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) has seen Kenya build its first satellite to observe farming trends and monitor the coastline.

The nano-satellite, which is set to be launched in the next two months from the International Space Station (ISS), was developed through a program known as KiboCUBE, launched in September 2015 by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and the Jaxa.

Through the KiboCUBE program, educational and research institutions from developing countries have an opportunity to deploy cube satellites from the ISS. Collaboration between public and private sector players, with the assistance of the World Bank, has also helped introduce an innovative insurance scheme that uses advanced technology and satellite data to assist agricultural workers in the face of flooding and drought conditions.

The program uses a state-of-the-art method of collecting crop yield data, using statistical sampling methods, GPS-tracking devices, and mobile phones. With data sources continually improving, agriculture insurance programs will offer unprecedented accuracy.

Various collaborative initiatives to explore the use of new technologies are sprouting within the region, attracting such heavyweights as Microsoft, IBM, Google, Deloitte, and the World Bank to partner with local institutions of higher learning to close technological skills gap and fund innovation.

One example is Strathmore Business School, which recently set up a data analytics center focused on data-driven research and processes for African businesses in partnership with Liquid Telecom, a data, voice and IP provider in eastern, central and southern Africa.

“Businesses in Africa now have a lot of data about their customers and their buying behavior. So far, a lack of skills in data science has prevented businesses from using that data for strategic decision making,” says Ben Roberts, Group Chief Technology and Innovation Officer at Liquid Telecom.

This is one of many collaborative projects that is establishing Nairobi as a center of innovation and training for data analytics.

“A data revolution is coming to Africa, bringing with it the need for new skills and infrastructure to help businesses unlock the true potential of big data,” says Dan Kwach, the General Manager of East Africa Data Centre. Increasing collaboration between industry and academia will be key to unlocking the opportunity.

 

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