Mobile phones ring changes in Kenya with internet access

In Kenya mobile penetration rates are 80 per cent; almost every man and woman has a phone and this is changing lives

Rising gross domestic product rates, growing populations, an emerging middle class and employment driven by technology are combining to create a new narrative about the African continent. The huge growth in mobile phone adoption and penetration rates equal those of more developed countries. In Kenya, mobile penetration rates are 80 per cent; almost every man and woman on the street has a phone and this tool is changing lives.

Many talk about how African countries are “leapfrogging” economic growth stages with the adoption of cellular and internet technologies.

Kenyans are embracing mobile internet, given that 99 per cent of new internet connections last year were on mobile phones. In just one quarter last year, the number of estimated internet users rose by 4.1 per cent, to 23.2 million users, out of a population of 45 million. People can access information out of their reach only recently.

Earlier this year, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon dropped into the iHub in Nairobi, a technology start-up centre. In contrast to the dusty streets and chaotic Nairobi traffic, what's interesting inside iHub is that it was a shopping centre, and shoe and handbag shops sit cheek by jowl with citizen journalism and accountability start-ups. The iHub was created by the founders of Ushahidi, a firm that developed mapping software to pinpoint violence during Kenya's disputed 2007-2008 presidential elections. Prompted by government-imposed media restrictions, Erik Hersman, a self-described "blogger and technologist" who goes under the moniker "the White African", got together with local colleagues. They brainstormed ways to get around the media blackout and came up with Ushahidi.

Citizen engagement

Hersman says with Ushahidi he is trying to change how information flows from “the current top-down structure” to a system where people in the community write reports using accessible software and affordable devices. There are many technology-based initiatives springing up in sub-Saharan


, often funded by international bodies including the UN, and they are similarly based on citizen engagement and reporting.

For the international aid funders, technology looks like a great opportunity – a method that can engage citizens, especially through their mobile phones, in reporting abuses of power or participating more in election processes. New technology is seen as an aid to citizens acting as watchdogs.

HiviSaSa is a citizen journalism platform led by young social entrepreneur Chloe Spoerry. She is based at "88mph" and reveals she has got money from a group of large, Silicon Valley funders for the next rollout of the platform which provides local news for the mobile web.

Kenya has gone through a process of devolution from central government to local control in the 47 counties, but most news coming from the mainstream media is Nairobi-centred. With a population of 45 million, 76 per cent of whom live in rural areas, Kenya has a pretty big market for local news. Spoerry says HiviSaSa is the “most far-reaching and cost-effective news model available in Kenya” and that it is “a genuine tool of democracy”.

Dual narrative

However, there is a “dual narrative” in Kenya, according to Irish Ambassador Vincent O’Neill.


opened an Embassy in Nairobi at the start of the year and provides funds for Kenya of about €6.5 million, mostly channelled through aid organisations such as




. O’Neill says it is true there is a growing middle class but there is still huge inequity, with 40-45 per cent living in extreme poverty. Extreme poverty is still the main reality, even if the poor have a mobile phone.

Kenyans, Tanzanians and the wider Africa continent are embracing mobile phones, they're connecting with the internet and each other. But this doesn't mean they're subscribing to the New York Times and engaging actively with the political system, as funders hope.

There are online communities, and this can be seen in the busy east African blogging scene, but most web users in Kenya and Tanzania are using connectivity to make friends on Facebook and access games and sporting information.

Not all of these technology and media projects will have a long-term impact but the excitement is creating an environment where people are telling positive stories about Africa and African ingenuity.

Prof Levi Obonyo of Daystar University in Nairobi has said ICT-enabled platforms are "creating a new mindset". "These projects are bringing young Kenyans together to create a new image of their country, and to shape a new space in which alternatives to the ways in which the country is currently run can be explored and tested." Tomorrow: In the second of two articles, Daire Higgins reports from Kenya on how the rapid growth in new media in Africa is transforming lives. This article was supported with a grant from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund