By Patrick Maluki
From the global launch of Windows 10 in its town of Nanyuki to medical device manufacturing by its 3D printing companies amid a worldwide pandemic, Kenya has experienced a digital revolution over the past few decades and is now a regional technological leader. It forms part of the 'KINGS' bloc – an acronym representing the five countries leading technological innovation in Africa, namely: Kenya, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa. Osiakwan (2017) considers Kenya to be at the forefront of the 'KINGS' due to three critical areas, namely: 'an aggressive and conscious government program to develop a broadband infrastructure; two critical innovations – mobile money and a crowdsourcing platform; and three, the development of a tech incubator and accelerator model for the continent catalysing the innovation agenda that has swept through Africa'.
The Kenyan government continues to invest heavily in technology, allocating US$210m of the FY2021/22 budget to various initiatives, such as: fast-tracking of the development of Konza Technopolis - Kenya's first smart city; and maintenance and rehabilitation of the National Optic Fibre Backbone (NOFBI) Phase II Expansion Cable. This paper assesses the economic gains of such developments within the country's Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) sector. It reviews some existing sectoral literature like government reports, academic works and industry news.
The paper first expounds on the country's digital economy status using relevant statistics on ICT access, usage and infrastructure, such as mobile penetration, mobile money transactions, and bandwidth capacity. It then evaluates the impact of ICT on various segments of the Kenyan economy such as trade, finance, agriculture, and entrepreneurship. It concludes by recommending potential investment opportunities within ICT, such as blockchain technologies, based on existing policies and industry trends and gaps.
Status of Kenya's ICT Sector
While most economic sectors worldwide have suffered reduced growth due to the COVID-19 pandemic and attendant containment measures, ICT has generally seen an upturn. For example, the World Bank reports that 22% of sub-Saharan African firms accelerated their use of digital technologies and increased their investments in digital solutions throughout 2020 in response to the pandemic. It was the case for 71% of firms in Kenya, with the highest increases among manufacturing firms (80%) and small firms (64%).
2.1 ICT Growth Trends
An evaluation of the pre-pandemic Kenyan ICT sector reveals a relatively robust industry. Its average annual growth rate was 10.8% from 2016-2019, standing at a US$4.6bn output value in 2019. Although the rate of growth slowed down subsequently its output value increased further by 2.5% to hit US$4.74bn in 2020. The main growth drivers in 2020 included fibre-optic subscriptions (+49%), 4G mobile network coverage (+42%), mobile commerce transactions (+35%), undersea bandwidth capacity (+29.6%) and mobile money transfers (+20%).
The output value refers to the market value of all goods and services produced by the ICT sector within the given period, whether consumed/used for further production. The 2020 lag signals reduced overall economic activity. So although ICT was relatively unencumbered by the pandemic it was not completely insulated against it. Figure 1 below indicate Kenya’s ICT output values between 2016 and 2020.
Between 2015-2019, Kenyan mobile subscriptions recorded one of the highest compound annual growth rates (CAGRs) in Africa (7%). Consequently, the 2019 national mobile density stood at 114.70 per 100 inhabitants. This means that the access to mobile telecommunication networks exceeds the actual size of the Kenyan population, with some phone users having more than one Sim card subscription. The value was far above the 82.3 African average and slightly below the world average, as shown in Figure 2.
In 2020, mobile penetration expanded further by 10% to reach 126.15 cellular subscriptions per 100 inhabitants. Such saturation of mobile access is a comparative advantage to the ICT sector in Kenya as it can be exploited by businesses to achieve economies of scale.
Kenya's total mobile network coverage stands at 96% (with 94% of the population being covered by 3G network and 77% by 4G). This compares favourably to the global average of 96.7% and even better when observed alongside the African average of 88.4%, where 3G and 4G coverage stand at 77.4% and 44.3%, respectively. Additionally, Kenya was the second African country after South Africa to roll out 5G in 2021, using technology from Nokia and Huawei. The development is expected to significantly increase internet speeds and capabilities within high-density areas and link thousands of connected devices in sectors like healthcare, manufacturing and supply chain management.
Figure 3 shows the gradual shift from 2G to 3G and 4G, as represented by changes in the number of mobile transceivers in Kenya between 2016-2020.
Kenyan access levels to internet broadband vary across wired and wireless networks. As of 2020, wireless broadband subscriptions stood at over 25m while wired subscriptions were around 580,000. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) attributes this skewed development to Africa's lack of legacy infrastructure juxtaposed with relatively lower costs of establishing wireless broadband infrastructure. However, the demand for fixed broadband in Kenya, particularly fibre-optic, has increased over the past few years due to its high speeds. Fibre to the Home (FttH) subscriptions rose by 56.2% in 2019 while Fibre to the Office (FttO) penetration grew by 43.3%.
A corresponding increase in bandwidth capacity is observed in the 36.9% expansion of undersea bandwidth infrastructure between 2018-2019, from 4.6m Mbps to 6.2m Mbps. The ITU adds that Kenya's international bandwidth per internet user was the highest in Africa in 2019 at 544.41kbit/s and the fastest-growing in Africa between 2015-2019 at 52% CAGR. This is strategic given the rising amount of data-intensive applications, cloud-based services, and the increasing numbers of internet users seeking better international connectivity.
All the same, FttO subscriptions declined by 8.6% in 2020 due to increased remote working during the pandemic, with FttH subscriptions recording a more than corresponding 67.6% growth. The general uptake of internet services rose significantly in 2020 as most social interactions, entertainment, learning and commercial activities embraced online platforms to minimise physical contact. To meet this new demand, the available bandwidth capacity further grew by 29.6% to 8.1m Mbps, with the utilised capacity reaching a five-year high at 49.5%.
Kenya is a global leader in mobile money with its world-famous M-PESA platform that was launched in 2007 by Safaricom. The technology has been widely credited as one of Kenya's most effective financial inclusion tools for offering transfer platforms to the majority unbanked and underbanked population, and significantly cutting down transaction times and costs. The number of Kenyan adults excluded from the financial system reduced from 42% in 2006 to 11% in 2019. The number of those who own a financial account (including bank/mobile money) stood at 83% in 2019, up from only 29% in 2006. The gender gap in financial inclusion also narrowed to around 6% in 2019.
As of 2020, Kenyan mobile money penetration stood at at 66.68 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants. These subscribers transacted a total of 1.86bn times that year, with a total transaction value of US$45.9bn – a five-year high 20% growth from US$38.3bn in 2019, as cashless transactions gained preference during the pandemic and mobile money transfer tariffs were reduced in response. Figure 5 summarises the steady growth trend of Kenyan mobile money between 2015-2020.
Mobile commerce transactions also snowballed, showing more than five-fold growth from a value of US$15.4bn when the data was commissioned in 2016 to US$82.7bn in 2020. Moreover, the total number of transactions more than doubled from 928m in 2016 to 2.2bn in 2019 when the data was last collected.
2.2 Silicon Savannah
Kenya prides itself in its large and relatively educated youthful population. With the labour force (15-64 years) at 57% of the total population and adult literacy at 82%, alongside the use of English as an official language of instruction and communication, Kenya is a reserve of potential and actual ICT talent from which investors can draw., Additionally, these characteristics make for relatively easy adoption of technological innovations, positioning Kenya as a potential target market.
However, a skills gap persists as the expected years of schooling stand at 11.3, and by 2018, less than one-fourth of the 47m population possessed ICT training., Government efforts to integrate ICT into education include the Digital Literacy Program (DLP) with 93.4% coverage in public primary schools. DLP secured US$67m in the FY2021/22 national budget for the provision of connectivity, digital devices, electricity, etc. Private initiatives like IBM's Artificial Intelligence (AI) research lab and development centres by Microsoft and Intel aim to build capacity and transfer much-needed knowhow. On the other hand, accelerator and incubator hubs like Nairobi's iHub work as innovation catalysts by bringing together capital and already existing talent. For instance, iHub pioneered the many co-working spaces in Africa today and was the birthplace of Ushahidi in 2008 - the crowdsourcing platform used to monitor disasters across the world.
Over 38 startup incubators and accelerators operate in Kenya, and it is estimated that for every 32 startups there is at least one incubator/accelerator. This technology ecosystem has led to the establishment of approximately 661 entrepreneurial software companies in Nairobi.
Kenyan ICT's Economic Impact
3.1 Job Creation
The industry absorbs large numbers of well-educated unemployed youth and was projected to create more than 250,000 jobs in 2021. Some leading job creators within ICT are telecommunication operators, mainly through their vast network of mobile money transfer agents. These small retailers convert customers' cash into virtual money and vice versa for a commission fee. As of 2020, there were a total of 264,390 transfer agents throughout Kenya -18% more than 224,108 in 2019 - who facilitated deposits worth US$28.4bn. Suri and Jack (2016) found that the expansion of M-PESA agent networks significantly improved the economic welfare of households within their geographical proximity by absorbing female labour graduating from subsistence agriculture and reducing women's reliance on multiple part-time jobs. Moreover, increased access to the networks substantially raised consumption per capita and lowered the average household size, leading to the lifting of about 194,000 households out of extreme poverty (income lower than US$1.25 daily).
Kenya's burgeoning digital services platforms in areas like e-commerce, transport and logistics have also contributed to job creation, having employed an estimated 286,000 workers by 2018. Figure 7 presents the job growth trend in three ICT sub-sectors from 2016-2020, while Figure 8 compares the number of employed wage labourers in the private and public ICT sectors between 2014-2018.
3.2 Economic Growth and Stabilisation
ICT has consistently contributed to Kenyan economic expansion. Figure 9 paints a picture of interconnectedness. As the national economy has grown, so has ICT and vice versa. While the industry's growth rate briefly slumped from 7.5% in 2019 to 4.8% in 2020 due to the pandemic, the positive growth registered, nonetheless, mitigated the impact on the broader economy to some extent. The 0.3% GDP contraction of the Kenya economy was not as bad as the 7% drop suffered by South Africa, for example. GDP growth in sub-Saharan Africa fell by as much as 1.8% in 2020.
Ayuya et al. (2021) add that ICT was crucial in maintaining agricultural value chains in the face of COVID-19. Many traders, transporters, consumers, and farmers adopted digital platforms ranging from web-based portals, android mobile apps to Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) shortcode services during the lockdown. These innovations bridged gaps within agri-food chains by providing vital information on fresh produce markets and suppliers, farm inputs like quality seeds, and extension services. The study finds that, within the sample, the quantity of vegetables and fruits sold to direct consumers, brokers/agents, and sold to other outlets actually increased during COVID-19. The ITU also notes that in the medium term, countries with top ICT connectivity infrastructure could mitigate up to 50% of the negative economic impact of the pandemic, especially in digitally-inclined industries like logistics.
In 2020, the nation earned US$12.4m worth of foreign currency from ICT equipment exports - a 9.8% decline from US$13.7m in 2019 due to COVID-19 containment measures that disrupted trade. Aside from goods, Kenya also exports ICT services such as in Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), product development and mobile money - the latter of which significantly boosted Kenya's international services trade in the early 2000s upon its development, as shown in Figure 11. ICT accounted for 10.2% of all service exports from Kenya in 2017, at a value of US$473m. Not only do ICT exports boost economic production due to the external demand, but they also earn the country much-needed foreign currency, which improves its overall Balance of Payments (BoP) position.
All the same, Matinkoi (2020) sees Kenya's ICT export potential as vastly untapped. The study recommends the enhancement of advanced ICT skills training in the country's labour force and greater investment in research and development to keep up with fast-paced innovation in the rest of the world. Additionally, while Kenya ranks well when it comes to regulatory maturity (it was the only African country amongst the global top 10 collaborative digital regulators of 2019), it can still do more to improve business climate and boost ICT growth further.
3.4 Asian Investments in Kenya
Kenyan ICT has enjoyed sustained capital injection. From 2010-2017, following the success of mobile money Kenyan fintech firms managed to raise US$204m in investment. This accounts 98.5% of all fintech investments in East Africa. In a 2020 sample survey, the Central Bank of Kenya found that the stock of FDI held in the ICT sector grew by 2.3% to US$1.3bn in 2019. Although Kenya trailed Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt when measured by the quantum of start up funding in 2021, the US$411m raised from over 131 deals does make it one of the ‘Big Four’.
As East Africa's financial, commercial and logistical hub Kenya houses the regional headquarters of several international technology firms. These include China's Huawei, India's Bharti Airtel and America's Google, General Electric, IBM and Microsoft,,,. Other firms with Kenyan operations include India's Wipro and Infosys Finacle, and South Korea's Samsung,,.
Singaporean firms are also expanding their Kenyan footprint, particularly in e-government, for which US$100m was allocated in the FY2021/22 national budget. For instance, the East African Community (EAC) Secretariat appointed GUUD to develop and operate a centralised platform for the flow of trade documents between partner states, including Kenya. On the other hand, CrimsonLogic developed a single-window platform for the Kenya Trade Network Agency (KenTrade) in 2013 for the convenient submission of regulatory import and export-related papers by cross-border traders. Singapore-based Thunes has partnered with Paypal and Kenya's Safaricom to provide private cross-border remittance solutions. CrimsonLogic and KenTrade further signed collaboration agreements in 2018 for a blockchain logistics platform, while InfoCorp sealed a deal in 2021 to provide blockchain technology that tokenises animals for the facilitation of smallholder livestock financing in Kenya.
Therefore, the involvement of foreign investors in Kenya's economy through ICT provides the necessary capital for industry growth and introduces skills and technology that augment economic development, especially when there is additional managerial involvement.
Opportunities for Future Asian Investment
Kenya leapfrogged into the digital age thanks to a mix of supportive public policies, public investment, skilled youthful labour, an entrepreneurial spirit, strategic regional positioning, and consistent economic growth. All the same, challenges and gaps pegging present ICT growth persist, but they simultaneously offer opportunities for investment, innovation and future development.
4.1 Meaningful Connectivity
The Kenyan (and African) digital divide along rural/urban, gender, income and skill lines is concerning. Consider that while Kenya has universal mobile penetration at 126% and near-universal cellular network coverage at 96%, less than 30% of the population has a mobile internet broadband subscription (Table 1). The GSM Association finds the unaffordability of data and internet-enabled handsets as the main barrier since non-internet-users tend to be poorer, typically those that are less educated, rural and women. Between 2019-2020, only 20.1% of women in Kenya used the internet against 25.1% of men. Within the same period, rural dwellers were 24%, and more than 10% less likely to use mobile internet and own a smartphone, respectively. While handset prices and data plan costs have generally declined over the years, more inclusionary efforts are needed.
Opportunity exists for Asian producers and sellers of smart feature phones and affordable smartphones to widely expand their market in Africa, thereby transplanting this revolution that swept through Asia, connecting the bottom of the pyramid. For example, Hong Kong's KaiOS Technologies partnered with MTN and Orange in 2019 to introduce US$20 feature phones in multiple African countries. In Kenya, where the leading mobile service provider retains 63.6% market share, expansion opportunities equally exist for Asian telecoms - including Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) for which licensing is now allowed - to increase competition. This will further lower data prices currently ranging between US$0.50-1.00 daily for 1GB and improve overall consumer welfare.
4.2 Blockchain (Distributed Ledger Technologies)
In 2013, developers of one of the nation's earliest cryptocurrency platforms, BitPesa, kept hearing from fintech gatekeepers that "Kenya was not ready for bitcoin". Fast forward to 2021, and Kenya has emerged as a global leader in the number of peer-to-peer cryptocurrency transactions (after adjusting for purchasing power parity per capita). Decentralised finance is increasingly helping Africans circumvent weakening local currencies and costly transfer fees, especially for cross-border transactions. However, blockchain technology offers more than bitcoin and could potentially disrupt other areas like cybersecurity, supply chain management, insurance, land title record keeping and e-government. By creating and maintaining transparent and incorruptible records with no centralised intermediary, blockchain can partly make up for absent/ineffective formal institutions, thereby providing significant value to developing countries.
The state-commissioned Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) Taskforce recommends the development of enabling policy frameworks and advanced education for corresponding innovation in Kenya. Asian expertise is therefore welcome in commercial ventures, as was the case for InfoCorp and CrimsonLogic, and in skills training partnerships as exemplified by Singapore's Terra AI and Kenya's Cliniq.
4.3 Recent developments
Recent policy developments include the requirement of 30% local ownership in all ICT companies by 2024, excluding those registered to offer BPO services exclusively. However, firms can apply to the Cabinet Secretary for exemption/extension. The 2021 introduction of Digital Service Tax (DST) imposes a 1.5% tax on the gross transaction value of any services offered by non-residents to users in Kenya over the internet/an electronic network, including digital marketplace platforms. The move targets incomes accrued in Kenya by large companies like Netflix and Amazon.
Kenya's first smart city is a 5,000 acre IT park located 60km south of Nairobi and a flagship project of the government's Vision 2030. It promises superior, reliable public infrastructure and business-friendly governance systems to attract investment for BPO, software development, data centres, renewable energy, research and technology universities, enterprise incubation, residential housing, hotels, hospitals, etc. As a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), the government hopes that Konza will greatly stimulate foreign investment and innovation through incentives such as: 90-year land leases; perpetual exemptions from Value Added Tax (VAT), stamp and excise duties; exemptions from rent and tenancy controls; and work permit entitlements for 20% of SEZ companies' full-time employees as detailed out in the Investor Handboo.
Though running behind schedule at the time of writing this piece, the development, when complete, could boost Kenyan digital entrepreneurship outside Nairobi, where 81% of ICT companies are currently located. Furthermore, it could prove to be a large-scale catalyst that brings high-quality capital, talent, and entrepreneurship together. The World Bank says that inadequate growth-focused financing and weak ‘pipelines’ of digitally-skilled talent significantly hamper the scalability of Kenyan tech enterprises - half of which, are low-productivity microbusinesses with less than three employees.
4.4 Regional Integration
The EAC instituted a customs union in 2005, then a common market in 2010, and now intends to create a monetary union with a single currency by 2024. The ultimate goal is the establishment of a political federation with a single government. A single East African digital market would be the ninth largest in the world (177m consumers) and offer substantial economies of scale and network. ICT players would enjoy seamless access to a broader market and lower costs of establishing digital infrastructure, while consumers would enjoy competitive pricing and enhanced utility due to the increased ubiquity of various digital products. Furthermore, the region's economy possesses significant future expansion potential and is expected to be the fastest-growing African bloc in 2022, at 5.6%.
Already, all companies cross-listed and trading regionally are headquartered in Kenya. Other investors interested in the single digital market's prospects could equally set up base in Kenya and gain more East African access as integration progresses, thereby locking in a first-mover advantage. Alternatively, Asian tech firms could follow the aforementioned examples of GUUD, CrimsonLogic and Thunes by providing innovative cross-border solutions. Demand for these technologies extends beyond the EAC to the whole continent as the scope of integration continues to expand, given the recent operationalisation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
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