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Developing smart policy to spur growth in the Silicon Savannah: An interview with Kenyan ICT Secretary Katherine Getao

Amy Turner - Digital Content Marketer, KNect365

Last week's East Africa Com served as a platform for those in both the private and public sector to meet one another, share ideas, solve challenges and mostly importantly - collaborate. Day one of the event saw one of Kenya's most prominent government and ICT figures deliver the Government Keynote Address. Dr. Katherine Getao serves as ICT Secretary for the Kenyan Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology, where she provides strategic direction and advice on numerous ICT issues.

We sat down with Dr. Getao following her address to talk about developing smart policy, the rise of the Silicon Savannah and what more can be done to spur growth in the East African tech and telecommunications sector.

1) You delivered the East Africa Com Government Keynote Address on smart policy and how it can ignite growth in the technology sector. You opened with a quote by Noam Chomsky: “There is a tremendous gap between public opinion and public policy”. Do you agree, and if so, why historically has this been the case?

What I tried to communicate later on in my presentation was that the world is moving fast and there are changes in technology that are disrupting traditional industry. Lots of educated, young people have access to information on the internet, are reading about all kinds of things and they know about a broad range of things.

"More than any other time in history, perhaps, they [governments] are likely to be challenged"

Therefore, you find that nearly everyone has an opinion on nearly every subject, and it’s now challenging for governments to make policy in this space. This is because more than any other time in history, perhaps, they [governments] are likely to be challenged, people are likely to have an opinion, to be concerned about how that particular policy is going to impact them - for good or for ill. As a result, you have to have the confidence as government that the policy you are making is right, even sometimes in the face of negative public opinion about that particular policy.

2) Thus the need for a smart policy. What do you think the key elements of a smart policy are, then?

Smart policy is knowledge-based, and I’m not just talking about the academic knowledge of the field of interest, in this case telecommunications, but also understanding the policy environment - both globally and locally. What’s happening in the sector? How are people using the technology? What are their concerns? What are the positive and negative impacts?

"The key thing is knowledge - being willing
to listen"

So apart from the big data, there’s also the small data - just the insight of really understanding the technology and where it’s going. There are also other issues, such as: The cost and how you are going to sustain that policy, the ecosystem, how you are going to learn and how you are going to bring your stakeholders in so that they can give wisdom. So, the key thing is knowledge, being willing to listen, to get lots of people to participate and give their opinions. 

3) Africa is proving to be fertile ground where the ICT sector is concerned and the origin of the new tech movement can be traced back to Kenya, now being called the Silicon Savannah. How do you think this has come about, and how has Kenya become the epicentre for this movement?

I think there are many things that came together at the same time and some of it was a word I like very much - serendipity. The Kenyan government has obviously traditionally invested a lot in education, and we have a good education system for our youth. We had free primary education, which brought a lot more young people into school.

We had a tremendous growth in tertiary education, with a fivefold increase in the number of public universities, as well as exponential growth in private universities. Therefore, just at the same time as mobile technology was very rapidly penetrating our market, and the internet was also coming in, the first fruits of this revolution in the education system happened. So they came together at the same time.

"We also have a tradition of tremendous self-confidence. Whether it’s in running marathons or in technology, we don’t feel that we’re runners up, we feel we can be right there at the front"

The second thing I’ll say, Kenyan young people are extremely well-exposed globally. They love their news, they love social media, they love television - so they know what is going on in the rest of the world. We also have a tradition of tremendous self-confidence. Whether it’s in running marathons or in technology, we don’t feel that we’re runners up, we feel we can be right there at the front.

So this confidence, the education, the energy and confidence of our youth just came together with the growth in technology, the access to the internet and access to cheaper technology. It all just came together at the same time, for good.

4) What do you believe are maybe still the main challenges for ICT and tech growth in East Africa, and specifically in Kenya?

I think cost is still a challenge, especially the cost of broadband. We need to look at that and see how it can become far more accessible for serious applications and using it for work. Capacity is still a challenge for many people, getting the right skills at the right time. 

"The biggest challenge is moving the innovations to become companies"

But perhaps the biggest challenge is moving the innovations to become companies and growing companies, not just tiny little start-ups. That is still a challenge, creating that ecosystem so there is that growth from a clever innovation.

I think technology adoption is also a challenge, there are some areas such as mobile money where the whole world knows how well we have adopted it. But we don’t have very many examples, although there are a growing number of examples of technologies that are penetrating to scale. 

5) Finally, with regards to the interaction between the private and public sector, are collaborations proving effective enough at forums such as East Africa Com?

Certainly, I think the private sector has a good space in Kenya. Their industry associations are able to meet at least four times a year with the president. He actually sits with them at presidential roundtables and listens to them and responds. He has his cabinet there and they’re given their work plans as per the issues that are being raised by the private sector with our head of state. I don’t think this is true in very many countries, so that’s tremendous support.

Even our regional processes, the private sector is now integrally involved, and therefore they are very well informed about what the government is doing and they are also able to have a voice about their concerns and about the opportunities that they are looking for in the region.

We also see a growing number of conferences, as you see I am here today to support you, and the [Kenyan] government is always there and willing to share information, willing to listen and willing to meet with the private sector. So I think for the private sector, Kenya and the whole of Africa is a really good place to be at this time. 

"East Africa Com has a feel good factor - it is a nice environment"

East Africa Com is well attended, the majority of the industry partners are here. It combines the sharing and the intellectual input with the exhibitions and there are plenty of spaces for people to talk to each other, which I think is one of the most important things. I think telecommunications is increasingly the engine of growth in our economies and, therefore I am all for a conference such as this one. It keeps us up to speed on the latest information, it helps us network and make contacts. It also has a feel good factor - it is a nice environment.

Keep up to date with all Com World Series news and take part in the conversation over on our social media channels, or comment below:

Website: East Africa Com 2016
Twitter: @AllAboutCom
LinkedIn: East Africa Com: Telecoms, ICT & Digital Media Group
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