Kenya’s Pasha Centres initiative seeks a new way to reach out into un-serviced areas

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Kenya’s ICT Board is in the throes of setting up what it has dubbed Pasha Centres as part of its preparations for the opening of the Seacom cable at the end of next month. Pasha Centres are designed to deliver voice and Internet services out into un-serviced rural areas. Unlike many other African Universal Service initiatives that are delivered by existing companies or donors, these will be set up by local entrepreneurs who will not necessarily have previous experience of ICT. Russell Southwood asks whether this is a brave or a foolhardy approach.

Set up in February 2007, the Kenya ICT Board has a four-fold mandate that encompasses: marketing Kenya as a business process outsourcing destination; advising the Government on the development of the ICT sector in the country; providing skilled capacity for the achievement of ICT projects for development; and project managing anchor projects.

One of its anchor projects is the creation of what it has dubbed Pasha Centres which are a combination of cyber-café and training centre. There are three levels of Pasha Centre - basic, standard and advanced - reflecting different levels of service and bandwidth available.

The Basic level centre will have connectivity only to the Centre with 4-5 lap-tops and will probably be housed alongside a retail outlet as a subsidiary business. The Standard level centre will have 6 laptops and a Media room with multi-media equipment for audio-visual work. It will also have: an IT training room; an IT supplies outlet; offer VoIP calling services and be able to service Wi-Fi connections to places several kilometres beyond the centre. On top of all of the above, the Advanced level centre will have an Interview room, a coffee shop and a Health Pod. The centres are designed to reach rural areas which have not yet got connectivity.

The services that will drive use are as follows: a Learning Centre (offering different types of training, some ICT related), video delivery (for example, watching downloaded programmes), IP phone services (giving cheap calling rates), a Media Centre (capable of knocking up posters, printing T-shirts and editing video) and Government e-services for day-to-day transactions.

The Government applications that will drive use are: the payment of taxes online; the ability to search legal cases and the constitution; a digitalised land registry and vehicle licence registrations.

These centres will be set up by entrepreneurs who will get soft loans over 3 years from the Government out of a revolving fund. There will also be a bandwidth support scheme. Paul Kakubo of the ICT Board says that the bandwidth support scheme is “to provide a quick-start approach to help the digital village entrepreneurs make the best use of time and resources available and see quick results.” In addition, they will get training to help them run the centre and there will be a maintenance scheme to help keep everything up-and-running.

The number of planned Pasha centres is shown in the table below:

There are three keys that will ensure the success or otherwise of the Pasha Centres: the availability of local entrepreneurs; services that people might want to use; and a demand for those services.

In terms of availability of local entrepreneurs, Kenya could not be a better place to start. Safaricom’s M-Money service, M-Pesa has 7,512 agents countrywide and a significant number of these are to be found in remote places. But whereas the M-Pesa agents have to risk their own money by putting up KS50,000-100,000, the Pasha Centre entrepreneurs get a free loan. Now obviously the scheme wanted to make the barriers to entry as low as possible but often what comes for free in Africa is not valued.

The service bouquet offered by the Centres has a range of interesting possibilities. If it can get basic Government and utility services like paying bills and taxes right, then people will begin to see a time trade-off. But this may underestimate the attractions of a day spent in the nearest large town or of a trip to Nairobi. The calculation is both social as well as economic. There will be a national information portal and the initiative is partnered with Cisco, Google and Microsoft.

Neverthless, Kakubo believes that there will be a high demand for computer based training in the rural areas and “it makes money and meets our objectives.” The bigger question is where does the training lead? If all goes well, it should lead on to people incorporating these services in their existing work or launching new businesses. What is less clear at this stage is the detail of those two things. It is hoped that e-commerce transactions will also form part of this mix.

The “missing middle” at the moment is perhaps content. People will fight to get into the centres if there is something they want to watch or listen to. If there were football matches or films screened with a digital projector, then it is not hard to imagine a crowd gathering. Likewise, the right sort of online education courses will lead to people coming through the doors. For as Kakubo says:”Rural consumers want quality education.”

Kakubo believes that:”Comsumers at the bottom of the pyramid will create their own reality. They will make the services work. We will lose some and gain some. They won’t be successful everywhere but there will be permanent successes.”