Nairobi My first visit to Nairobi was more than a decade ago. Where I stayed claimed access to the internet on a dial-up modem so slow that each email would take fifteen minutes or more to send, if it didn’t timeout before completion. Doing the least amount after a day of work meant staying up until the wee hours to do the bare minimum to keep up and hold on the rest of my job. There’s improvement without question. There is more wireless access and at better speeds even at Shalom House, where they wisely have multiple routers. On my last trip to Nairobi, we met with an NGO managing an elaborately funded tech space who touted the city as the future Silicon Valley of Africa. Now three years later, the evidence is still hard to find.
The bright shining star of tech in Kenya has been via mobile phones and money transfers and payments via cellphones. The competition between Vodafone, AirTel, and Safaricom continues to be intense and, relatively speaking, costs have stayed down somewhat. There are signs everywhere in the malls claiming they accept mobile payments. There are more smartphones in evidence, but largely that means in the malls of the middle class. Talking to ACORN Kenya organizers the dominant phones are still the basic “burner” models often requiring a switch of SIM cards to access one or another of the dominant networks.
Cyber cafes are still the standard access, if any, for most people, and they are heavily metered. Most computer terminals are little more than typewriters with a screen so that work can be done off the grid, and then loaded up quickly through a thumb drive to keep the cost down. One of my organizers had worked out an off-the-records deal at a cyber café to be able to get on the internet in the low demand, after hours to cut the cost. They were signed up on Facebook, but didn’t really use it, because “time is money.” YouTube was unknown to my team though they were fascinated that ACORN International had its own YouTube channel. The notion that they would pay the tariff to listen to their interview on my radio show for thirty minutes was remote given the cost. The small Acer computer I had muled over to them on my last trip had expired long ago. A used computer donated to the office had been serviceable but on the eve of my arrival failed to turn on. The idea of surfing the web for research or information was a mirage for these capable and adept organizers. They looked over my shoulder with enthusiasm and interest as I fulfilled their request to create an ACORN Kenya Facebook page.
The much touted cellphone based money transfer system is also a mirage outside of commercial applications that benefit the carriers and commerce. Their bank now charges a fixed fee of 600 Kenya Shillings or $60 USD to handle the transfer from ACORN International to cover their expenses, taking a huge bite of every remittance. Meeting with the bank they explained they charge the same fee no matter the level of the remittance whether a hundred dollars or ten thousand, making a classic case for low-end exploitative, predatory pricing.
We spent some time trying to find a workaround with PayPal where the fees would be significantly cheaper. Kenya was prominently displayed on their website, so with Sammy and David over my shoulders spelling the street names and watching in wonder, I enrolled the ACORN Kenya Trust as a new member and successfully navigated the clunky site until the point where we would enter the bank account for ACORN Kenya. After hitting a score of links that seemed to lead that way and being returned as often to the original site, I was never able to enter the Kenya Commercial Bank and ended up sending a message to the Help site. I was troubled by seeing Equity Bank listed as perhaps a “preferred” receiver of transfers for PayPal, so I fear this much touted “solution,” is captive of yet another commercial transaction established with only one Kenyan banking institution.
The rest of our day was more productive but the lessons of high barriers to internet access and continuing predation for money transfers cast a cloud over many of the day’s plans and conversations.