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{UAH} Allan/Gook/Pojim: Kibaki made Kenya a Web leader

A Ugandan journalist and writer, looking both troubled and intrigued, asked why Internet penetration in Kenya was "years ahead" that of its East African Community peers.

Kenya's penetration rate (the percentage of the population that uses the Internet) is not just out there in the EAC. At 77.8 per cent, it is also the highest in Africa.

Only Mauritius gets even close to sniffing at its heels, with 62.7 per cent.

In the EAC, Uganda is second at 31.3 per cent, followed closely by Rwanda at 30.6 per cent. Then there is another surprising twist. Failing South Sudan is fourth with 16.6 per cent. Tanzania follows at 6.5 per cent, and Burundi brings up the tail at 4.4 per cent.

My friend was puzzled that, for example, Kenya is so far ahead of Rwanda, which is the country where the government has invested most in things digital, and pursues them with religious zeal.

Immediately we ruled out government dedication, because then Rwanda would be on top of the tree.

In other countries, Mauritius and Seychelles being examples, some have argued that small size is an advantage, making it easier to link up to the Internet. If that were true, then Rwanda would top the league, followed by Burundi and Uganda.

And the disadvantages of size would affect Tanzania and South Sudan equally, and Kenya wouldn't be so far ahead.

Can't be political stability either, because then Kenya and Tanzania would be nearly tied.

If one expands the analysis to the rest of Africa, no clear pattern emerges either.

Even good governance doesn't account for it. In Uganda, for example, fibre-optic cable is a favourite meal of the corrupt there. But it is second. Same with Nigeria, yet it has a respectable 48.8 per cent.

Kenya's place at the top of the food chain can't be understood without factoring in one man who was too uninterested to use the Internet – former president Mwai Kibaki.

A story is told that when Google was doing its Nairobi map, some security types didn't want State House marked. When the matter went to Kibaki, he asked, "Why not?"

When Kenya was launching its open data initiative in 2011, it was dead until a few hours to its launch, when Kibaki, to the horror of the securitocracy, gave it the green light.
So the one thing the other countries lack is a Kibaki, who didn't fuss too much over the Internet.

But I think the biggest secret to Kenya's technology lead lies in 1970s-early 80s Uganda. Yes.

The nightmare years of military dictator Idi Amin, and the next eight years after his fall in 1979, nearly emptied Uganda of its intellectuals and middle class.

Many fled to Kenya, where they got jobs mostly as teachers in primary and secondary schools, and some in universities.

Former Uganda university lecturers ended up teaching secondary school in Kenya. And secondary and high school teachers taught primary school.

Kenya's knowledge development got the equivalent of a massive steroid shot. It underwent a unique knowledge revolution. That was the one thing that happened to it that no other African country has experienced.

The products of that period were ready to take over just when Kibaki became president at the end of December 2002. The rest, to use the cliché, is history.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. Twitter@cobbo3

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