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Two counties in Kenya faced drought, climate change, poor physical infrastructure, and a pandemic.

Rebuilding rural digital inclusion in Kenya post-COVID

How Kenya can exploit opportunities to provide all Kenyans with affordable internet access.

By Leonard Mabele, Researcher, Strathmore University, Kenya

In March 2020, Kenya went into lockdown, but lacked the level of Internet connectivity required to keep the various sectors of the economy fully functioning.

Despite boasting the largest economy in the Eastern Africa region, Kenya is a country where the digital “have-nots” significantly outnumber the “haves.” The effect of COVID-19 began to be felt as 18 million students – from primary schools to colleges and universities –had to continue their education online.

Out of 47.6 million Kenyans, most live in rural areas, while only about 30% live in cities and towns. With schools locked down, more than half of all students had to travel back to where their parents and guardians were, which in this case meant the rural areas.

Kenya’s land is largely rural with a number of areas still missing power connection to the grid, so the rural areas face low levels of income, dispersed human settlements, low digital literacy levels, and other challenges. For that reason, the lockdown dealt a huge blow to the academic system.

The healthcare sector was also hit. Under the Connect2Recover initiative, led by the ITU and supported by Huawei and other partners, my colleagues and I studied these two sectors in terms of Internet access before and during the pandemic; and what mechanisms the government was putting in place to guarantee sustainability of Internet access.

We chose two counties Kakamega and Turkana because in the 2019 census, Kakamega came out as the most populous rural county while Turkana was the second largest by land area. Both faced multiple challenges, including drought and climate change, inadequate social services, and poor physical infrastructure.

What we found
Our findings showed that both academic and healthcare facilities in the two counties faced similar challenges at the height of the pandemic. However, Kakamega had a more reliable infrastructure compared to Turkana, particularly in terms of National Optic Fiber Backbone Infrastructure (NOFBI) - the country’s fiber optic connectivity initiative. The spotty 4G/LTE coverage affected both students and teachers, who were expected to join online sessions for continuation of studies. Initiatives by the government to unlock access to content through Television (TV) and radio FM were not sufficient to meet the needs of the learners. Some students did not have TVs at home, and some couldn’t guarantee enough electricity to even have reliable radio access via mobile phones.

The one-hour slots for joining the TV or radio FM classes were insufficient and there was no opportunity to access recordings. The opportunity to address such challenges, such as through the use of High-Altitude Platform Stations (HAPS), unfortunately did not live up to expectations. While a lack of alternative access options, affordability, quality of access to data services and content for the students were present in both counties, Turkana was more affected than Kakamega. Issues identified during the field surveys included cost, backhaul limitations, electrical power and quality of service as variables needing further study. Conversely, spectrum sharing (SS) could provide more alternatives of access to the rural areas of Kenya – an opportunity that can be leveraged to “build back and better” the connectivity needs of rural Kenya.

Analysis and observation
The Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) often bases the country’s connectivity on the coverage of the cellular network, neglecting the opportunity provided by other Internet access options. This limits the data available to paint a real picture of the state of connectivity in the country, particularly through technologies such as satellite, microwave links, 5 GHz Wi-Fi networks as well as other Fixed Wireless Access (FWA). The CA reports often use the number of SIM subscriptions as a measure of coverage, which in reality is not the case, since much of the rural population uses mobile devices that cannot connect to the Internet. 

While Turkana occupies almost 13% of Kenyan land, NOFBI coverage had not reached the county at the onset of the pandemic, which means it faces an extra level of digital divide. Levels of literacy and appreciation of the value of the broadband network also have to be addressed to help contribute to bridging the usage gap

There needs to be a proper mapping of broadband needs based on real infrastructure coverage. While the initiative of HAPs by Google Loon got large media coverage during the pandemic, very little in-country feasibility studies have been done on its deployment, benefits and sustainability for rural broadband access. There is also a need to increase the number of Community Networks (CNs) in underserved rural communities. Unfortunately, 90% of the ISPs engaged seemed unaware of the newly enacted regulations through spectrum sharing. This calls for more efforts to rally stakeholders not to remain behind in novel efforts that can contribute to their business models and rapidly spur alternative connectivity options for the unconnected.

To connect rural areas of Kenya such as Kakamega and Turkana stakeholders need to consider factors beyond infrastructure, such as electricity requirements and levels of income.

More schools and healthcare facilities can be connected by incentivizing initiatives such as spectrum sharing to increase the number of Community Networks (CNs).

The extent of dark fiber coverage needs to be assessed and backhaul access for the last-mile Internet initiatives enhanced.

School and healthcare centre connectivity needs should be mapped. This will help establish a data-driven decision-making ecosystem that can save on cost, minimize duplicated effort, and strengthen the available options for connectivity.

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