Towards the Digital Super Highway: How community networks will shape Kenya’s digital agenda

This piece was originally published on the website of APC member organisation KICTANet as part of a series of blog posts on the work that the organisation has been doing around community networks.

Kenya does it again! The community networks movement in Kenya is happy to lead the way with the new Association for Community Networks, the first ever in Africa. The association is a membership-based network that unites community networks in Kenya, amplifies their voices, and prioritises their needs in policy dialogues, fostering a favourable environment for their development.

The Association for Community Networks in Kenya (ACNKe) is made up of members from 13 community networks in Kenya, representing eight counties. They include AngazaNet (Nairobi), AheriNet (Kisumu), Alinet (Laikipia), Athi Community Network (Meru), Dunia Moja (Kilifi), Lanet Umoja (Nakuru), Tanda (Nairobi), Oasis Mathare (Nairobi), Action Pour Le Progres (Turkana), Kijiji Yeetu (Siaya), Ngikeyokok (Turkana), Siaya Community Library (Siaya) and GIV (Turkana).

The minimum requirement to retain membership in the association is:

  1. To have a community networks licence

  2. To have infrastructure, at least one node.

So far, 11 community networks have applied for the Community Networks Service Provider License established by the Kenyan telecoms regulator.

The community network movement has been strengthened since 2021 through the Kenya National School of Community Networks, a capacity-building programme supported by the Local Networks (LocNet) initiative, which is led by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC ) in partnership with Rhizomatica.

Through the school, community networks in Kenya grew from seven in the first phase to 11 in the second phase, and there are now 13. The community networks have organised themselves into communities of practice: sustainability, local content creation and network infrastructure.

Since the inception of the LocNet initiative in 2016, there has been rapid growth of awareness and an increase in the number of community networks in Africa through movement-building efforts, in an effort to increase awareness and understanding of these models and to facilitate information sharing.

In Africa, movement building has taken the form of capacity-building forums, dialogues, training and learning exchanges with community-based initiatives, policy makers, academia and digital rights enthusiasts. In Kenya, these efforts have led the creation of 13 community networks so far (a big increase from the initial three), the formation of an association, recognition through a licensing framework for community networks, and the cherry on the cake, a seat at the table in shaping Kenya’s digital agenda.

Digital Access Partners Meeting

On 22 May 2023, UK Aid through its Digital Access Programme (DAP) hosted a four-day partners workshop at Pride Inn Hotel, Machakos County. The four-day workshop brought together the African Centre For Women, Information and Communications Technology (ACWIT), the Association of the Physically Disabled of Kenya (APDK), the Association of Internet Service Providers of Kenya and the new Association of Community Networks of Kenya, alongside other partners in the government including the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) and the ICT Authority (ICTA).

The workshop focused on two UK DAP-funded projects: Digital Services in Agriculture and Digital Accessibility of Government Services for Persons with Disabilities.

Within KICTANet’s programme of ICT Accessibility and Equality of Persons with Disability, its fellows were part of a team that conducted research on the accessibility of government of Kenya websites for persons with disabilities. They came up with a scorecard and a policy brief, which they presented during the DAP partners meeting. ICTA proposes to have 25% of the government’s websites accessible by July 2024.

Since 2018, the Digital Access Programme has been supporting affordable, inclusive, safe and secure digital access for the excluded populations in Kenya as part of a global programme targeting five countries (Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Brazil, and Indonesia). The National School of Community Networks is part of this programme and has been implemented in all five countries.

Towards the Digital Super Highway

The community networks movement in Kenya has come far, finally gaining recognition in 2021 through the implementation of the Community Networks Service Provider License and again during the DAP partners meeting, where the director of ICTA and Universal Service Fund (USF) officials recognised the crucial part that community networks play in their efforts to connect underserved communities in Kenya.

The government stated its intention to collaborate with community networks and other present stakeholders in helping shape the country’s digital agenda, specifically in rolling out 25,000 wi-fi hotspots and 1,450 village digital hubs as part of the “Digital Super Highway”. ICTA proposes to have a public Wi-Fi framework by December 2024.

Viscar Industrial Capacity Limited, a private consultancy firm, was contracted to provide technical assistance for the Universal Service Fund strategic plan in supporting the government’s Transformational Digital Agenda. The overall objective of the technical assistance is to enhance CA’s capacity to implement the 2023/4-2027/8 USF Strategic Plan while mainstreaming DAP’s contribution through their partners in the implementation.

The USF strategic plan 2023-2027 can be summarised into three strategic goals:

Infrastructure and services

  • Promote the development of communication infrastructure and services in rural unserved and under-served areas.

  • Support access to communications services by persons with disability, youth, and other vulnerable groups.

Digital skills and content

  • Build digital skills among the youth, women and other vulnerable groups.

  • Support the development of and access to relevant local content and technological innovation for the youth, women and vulnerable groups.

Institutional capacity

  • Attain institutional excellence in the management and administration of the Fund.

  • Provide appropriate tools and systems for the management and administration of the Fund

The government is digitising 80% of its services and will require partnerships at the grassroots to build the capacity of these e-services and train the communities on digital skills to navigate these government platforms.

Community networks are community-owned and community-operated and have a deep understanding of the ecosystem in which they operate. They are specially placed in shaping the Government’s Transformational Digital Agenda through the implementation of the “Digital Super Highway” in all the three above-mentioned strategic goals.

Catherine Kyalo is the Africa Regional Coordinator for the LocNet initiative on behalf of KICTANet.

Photo courtesy of ACWIT.

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