Let Silicon Savannah forge its path

High speed wireless mobile data 5g concept image.
Photo credit: Fotosearch

What you need to know:

  • Kenya is country that has in the past few years been making the right ICT policies, with a data law taking effect last year, and attempts to direct it towards a specific path should be resisted. 
  • The war that has seen Google ban Huawei from using its Android mobile Operating System has now drifted to Africa.

Kenya has now become the battlefield for the ongoing technology impasse between the United States and China, in a period where companies from both nations have bolstered efforts to achieve more government goodwill for their products locally.

But in the latest attack on China, the US ambassador to Kenya Kyle McCarter heightened the tensions when he said during an interview with the East African newspaper that the US is ‘concerned’ about Huawei’s 5G plan in Kenya.

Citing data privacy and protection as the key reason why the Kenyan government should avoid collaborating with the world’s most populous nation on matters technology, the US embassy in Nairobi reignited the ever heated debate about how tech behemoths have in the past used private user data to influence political decisions with impunity.

The war that has seen Google ban Huawei from using its Android mobile Operating System has now drifted to Africa – the only continent left with opportunities for tech solutions, after markets in developed economies get more saturated every day.

Pertinent issue

But what I find appalling about Mr McCarter’s comments is that though data privacy is a pertinent issue for many governments, it is the US advising Kenya about which companies should be trusted with citizen data.

Many data experts in the country will tell you that Kenyan voters have not forgotten how Facebook – an American company – allowed Cambridge Analytica (CA) to siphon private data of thousands of Kenyans for psychological manipulation of voters in the last two elections.

CA, which was closed in 2018 following global public outcry about its manipulation of the 2016 US election, the Brexit vote and elections in other countries, still operates in Kenya in the guise of data analytics and public relations companies.

An investigation I did a month ago got me shocked when I confirmed that the company that started designing algorithms to find a swing vote to tilt elections using Natural Language Processing at Cambridge University, a sub-branch of Artificial Intelligence, had seven other companies as accomplices in helping subvert the will of Kenyan voters.

These companies have changed their identity, pulling down their websites, deregistering their businesses and changing names but still operate in Kenya’s dark web and spin doctoring. Facebook has always been found on the wrong side of data protection laws, and even hijacking the war against fake news, with a July report indicating that it exposed more than 3 billion users across the globe to health misinformation regarding to Covid-19.

So the question of which companies the world should be wary about with respect to data privacy is well known. It is ironical for the US to try to lecture Kenya on which tech partners to put its money on.

I love how Mr Joe Mucheru, the ICT Cabinet Secretary once responded to such calls of being "careful who to give your data" and warnings against rolling out 5G network infrastructure in Kenya.

5G vendors

"We cannot stop even if we are asked to do so. We are an independent country." He reminded the US that the government does not deal with 5G vendors, it is the business of service providers to choose which companies to work with.

When US President Donald Trump announced that his country needed 6G, he confirmed what everyone had always guessed: China has by far surpassed the US in technology, and the bitterness has been evident as the Fourth Industrial Revolution sweeps across industries disrupting most processes, with Huawei’s prowess in the global 5G industry making some nations uncomfortable.

Kenya is country that has in the past few years been making the right ICT policies, with a data law taking effect last year, and attempts to direct it towards a specific path should be resisted.  As the nation lays ground for the implementation of 5G projects next year, the government and private sector must be careful on who to listen to.

Without the intervention of any foreign company, East Africa’s biggest economy only ranks second after China in terms of mobile money penetration, has the fastest transactions in Africa, the second fastest internet in the continent and the highest sim card subscription rate and also ranks among countries with the most affordable internet.

Let Kenya be. Let ‘Silicon Savannah’ choose what it feels better unlocks its potential in the digital economy.

 fmailu@ke.nationmedia.com. @faustination

Mutuma Mathiu’s column will resume next week.