Kenya draws inspiration from Estonia in its journey toward e-governance

Panel session at the e-Governance Conference in Tallinn, Estonia. Photo from e-Governance Academy.

During Kenya's recent Madaraka Day, President William Ruto shared a vision for a digital future, promising to digitize all government services by the end of 2023, thus propelling Kenya onto the path of e-governance. With a population of over 54 million, Kenya is a thriving democracy, but its internet penetration rate stands at only 33 percent, posing a crucial question: Is the country prepared to embrace the wave of e-governance?

While e-governance symbolizes a global revolution, its waves reach developing nations like Kenya with a sense of hope and trepidation. Such nations anticipate an opportunity to leapfrog their economies as the shift online could lead to increased productivity and efficiency. United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, LI Junhua, contends that “well-managed digital transformation and digital government, through the inclusive application of digital technology and multistakeholder partnerships, will continue to be a powerful driver for advancing a sustainable future for all.”

Unveiling e-governance: The Kenyan landscape

In Kenya, the rise of digital transformations like the successful mobile banking platform M-Pesa, exhibits the country's digital strides. The Republic of Kenya has established itself as a leader in digitalization within Eastern Africa, often called the Silicon Savannah. Its National Digital Master Plan for 2022–2032 is a testament to its dedication to envisaging a decade of digital transformation. Yet, shifting all government services to the digital sphere presents a greater challenge.

The government aims to shift all services to the eCitizen platform by 2023, with President Ruto announcing an increase in digital platform services from 320 to 5,000, intending to cover approximately 7,000 services by year-end. This digital shift aims to enable citizens to access services seamlessly, eliminating excessive bureaucracy. However, Kenya's push towards e-governance faces significant hurdles, such as bridging the digital divide and confronting potential security threats.

Challenges of e-governance in Kenya

The digital divide in Kenya, particularly between urban and rural areas, poses a significant challenge for e-governance. With urban areas boasting a 44 percent internet penetration compared to the mere 17 percent in rural regions, this gap exacerbates existing inequalities, making only 49 percent aware of the e-governance services or platforms. This risks excluding a substantial portion of the population from accessing digitized government services and participating in digital civic engagements. This divide, if unaddressed, could impede the inclusivity and effectiveness of Kenya's e-governance transformation.

Simultaneously, the spike in cyber threats and data breaches, particularly against the Kenyan banking sector which lost approximately USD 40 million to cybercrime in a year, underscores the urgency of strong cybersecurity measures. As Raymond Omollo, Principal Secretary of the State Department for Internal Security and National Administration stated in a tweet:

Paradigm Initiative's 2022 Digital Rights and Inclusion report underscored these challenges. It confirmed that access to digital technology in Africa, especially for persons with disabilities and underserved communities, remains daunting. This lack of access creates barriers, including a lack of accessible infrastructure, digital literacy skills, and affordable assistive devices. 

Moreover, the Kenyan government's alleged abuse of technology raises concerns about privacy erosion and democratic principles. Reports have exposed how technology is used to suppress dissent, curtail freedom of expression, and manipulate electoral processes. These issues underscore the pressing need for safeguards to protect privacy, preserve freedom of expression, and uphold democratic values in Kenya.

Learning from success: The Estonian model of e-governance

Estonia, globally hailed as a pioneer in e-governance, provides a valuable model for countries like Kenya. Its citizen-centric approach to digital transformation centers around a unique digital identity for every citizen, facilitating access to a wide array of online services. The keystone of Estonia's e-governance is the X-Road system, a decentralized platform ensuring secure data exchange between different digital services, thereby enhancing efficiency. Additionally, Estonia's focus on cybersecurity, digital literacy, and a transparent, accountable digital environment underscores its success.

This model embodies the potential of e-governance when executed with a clear vision, robust infrastructure, and an unwavering commitment to citizen empowerment. Prime Minister Kaja Kallas's assertion at the e-Governance Conference in Tallinn, “E-governance is not just about building technology but also building up democracy,” sets the tone for Kenya's digital journey.

Envisioning a future beyond digitization

Kenya's Cabinet Secretary for ICT, CS Eliud Owalo, while consulting with Fayaz King, the United Nations Secretary General’s Envoy on Technology, envisioned a future where Kenyans transition from “standing in the line to going online.”

A successful transition to e-governance could bring transformative social, economic, and political changes to Kenya, bridging the urban-rural divide and empowering citizens. There are also organizations like The Digital for Development (D4D) Hub. The African Union–European Union (AU-EU) Digital for Development (D4D) Hub supports African institutions in laying grounds for an inclusive and sustainable digital transformation. The project works with African governments and regional organizations to advance digital cooperation with European partners.

Kenya's path to a fully digitized government is riddled with challenges but also shimmers with promise. As the country navigates this digital revolution, many stakeholders remain hopeful. The Kenya Digital Readiness Report confidently states, “The digital future of Kenya is bright,” reflecting upon past achievements of the National ICT Masterplan 2017. The current masterplan's robust agenda, featuring an extensive 100,000 km national fiber optic network, a digital one-stop-shop for government services, a national public key infrastructure, a unique smart ID card system, digital literacy training for 20 million citizens, and the establishment of 1,450 digital hubs, appears promisingly within reach.

As digitalization draws near, is this the final stage of e-governance in Kenya or does it merely highlight deeper issues? Even as the government rushes towards digitization, some citizens express concerns that the core problem isn't a lack of digital services but a fundamentally broken system, and other pressing issues such as the cost of living should be addressed first.

The journey to e-governance, they contend, shouldn't merely be a race towards digitization, but a broader mission to revamp and improve the governmental system. As Kenya stands on the precipice of this digital transformation, only time will reveal if it's ready to ride this wave to its promising digital future. As they say, it takes a village to raise a child, and it will indeed take a global digital village to raise an e-governed nation.

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