Falling into the cracks in data coverage – how a village close to the fibre and 45 minutes from Nairobi can’t get data access

10 March 2017

Top Story

Kenya has 96% population coverage for voice and it will not be long before it reaches near to 100%. But for data acess it’s a very different story. Even close to Nairobi and within an easy distance of a fibre there are those that fall into the cracks in data coverage. Russell Southwood spoke to John Kieti about one such place where he lives.

John Kieti lives in Kathome, 55 kms south-east of Nairobi, just 45 minutes from Nairobi along the road to Machakos. The place where he lives is about 1 kms off the road and along that road there are about 4 schools and a shopping centre with about 20 shops. It is a large village of about 5,000 people but there’s no equivalent of a cyber café there.

The population is made up of low-income families, a large number of whom and casual laborers or fundis. There are also another couple of people like him, Government or company employees. Most of the low-income people in the village combine casual laboring with subsistence farming.

“They have animals and many times someone has 2-5 acres on which they plant maize or beans. Often the crops fail because of climate change. I’m trying to explore with them ways of changing farming practices, to see whether they will embrace more modern techniques.”

He wants to promote entrepreneurial practices in agriculture, starting with poultry value chains. Everyone has 10-20 chickens which they slaughter once in a while for special occasions:”I want to do this commercially with economies of scale. The use of modern farming practices is only among those slightly ahead in terms of economic status (in the village).” Because of the proximity to Nairobi he thinks they could sell this type of free-range chicken there where its taste would command a premium price.

He chose to live there because he wanted to have a home away from Nairobi:”I have a poultry farming project that is tied to my Phd. I’m collecting data from my poultry farming activities.” Before he moved there he was a Manager at iHub and he now combines doing his Phd with freelancing for various international organisations:”I have no family connection with the place.”

Although there is a fibre along the main road, he can’t get connectivity for work purposes at his home:”Along the road I can get some level of connectivity from Safaricom and Airtel but it’s mostly 2G. In my home the signal becomes so bad I can’t even work. I mostly try to work online with documents in the cloud and dealing with email.”

“The other day I had a call with colleagues in DC and Jamaica. I had to drive to a nearby town where the data is more reliable and I had to stay there to have the Webex call. There’s a 3G connection there. It’s a major trading centre (Machakos) along the road to Mombasa and trucks stop there.” He has counted at least seven similar villages along the road to Machakos and similar amounts further down his nearest road the other way.

He started thinking about the fibre running along the highway and getting a link from it to his house to provide something better than a poor 2G connection for himself and the villagers. So did he speak to the mobile operators?:”I used to call them very often. They have a mechanism to identify coverage gaps. They were enthusiastic and would say we’ve taken notes and we’ll send people to do an assessment. They were very hopeful but after the third time of calling I gave up because nothing happened. I download an app to identify the nearest base station and it turned out to be at Kyumvi on the road to Machakos on a hill.”

“It would be possible to link from the fibre on the highway and to Machakos. I asked someone from NOFBI (the Government’s fibre network), then managed by Orange and got the answer for another place. It needs a junction at the fibre to connect from the road so that I can then get line of sight access from the road. I could then have a device to pick it up in my home and distribute it in the village.”

Someone working for a local wholesale fibre supplier confirmed to me that putting in a junction in the fibre would be easy and not terribly expensive:”If I had good internet connectivity in Kathome it would help unlock economic opportunities”.

“Most people are casual labourers and craftsmen. If a company had a service targeting fundis living there, it would have to be accessed through USSD or SMS short codes. But the experience would be richer and more impactful with good internet through a website or a mobile app. They could improve their farming techniques with access to the Internet. I was trying to look at the mFarm but it was not possible. I was trying to encourage them to use mLedger but they had to go a long way to get the connectivity to make it work so they’re unlikely to use it. Rural populations should not be neglected but these populations are not considered to be rural.”

So how does the Government initiative to connect the Counties affect him?:”In Machakos town, there appears to be a county government WiFi link covering much of the business district targeting the youth. It’s probably a secret, it’s not been publicized. Its hard to tell get the password. The signal is usually only 3 bars so it’s not the strongest. The mobile network connectivity there in terms of Safaricom is very good so why not use it? But the free Wi-Fi, it’s either a secret or a mystery.”

He has another home in Nairobi and the contrast with Kathome is as striking as you would imagine. He uses Netflix as his default entertainment or sometimes You Tube:”Netflix is more commonplace than a year ago. I find myself staying longer without my Pay TV connection. It’s been disconnected. Netflix is cheaper than DStv and other Pay TV products.” (Almost everyone I spoke to in Nairobi was using Netflix. Not a single person was using Showmax).

He can also do a lot of research online and making Skype and Webex calls poses no problem. He’s also setting up a side business, an “e-commerce thing for “drop shopping”.

For all the talk about the percentage of population covered, other African countries are no different to Kenya. The reality is that there are communities that fall into the coverage cracks and getting these places access to Internet is as important as making sure those in remote areas have it.

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