Boda boda (motorbike taxi) riders wait for taxi fares or delivery jobs by the side of the road. The dramatic increase in use of mobile apps such as Jumia, Uber and Taxify in Kenya in recent years has linked self-employed informal sector workers, such as boda bodas, with thousands of potential customers, bringing them into the digital economy (Photo: UNDP Kenya).

 

The COVID-19 pandemic is destined to be a watershed moment in human history, with the health, social and economic crises it has spawned calling into question the resilience of almost all aspects of our society. Whereas the upscaling of healthcare system capacity and mass communication campaigns around physical distancing and hygiene have understandably and rightfully been at the forefront of the conversation around COVID-19, the influence it has and will continue to have on the nature of work, business and interaction is also worthy of discussion.

At the heart of this moment is digital technology: with restrictions on movement to combat the spread of the virus across much of the world at this time, digital solutions such as telecommuting, online customer engagement, on-demand delivery of products, virtual surveillance, cloud computing, and tech-supported production are offering lifelines for many during this pandemic. But with both limited and inequitable digital inclusion in Kenya today, it’s unfortunately all too clear that COVID-19 has reinforced inequalities and exacerbated existing vulnerabilities.

Emerging digital concepts such as the Internet of Things and the 4th Industrial Revolution, whilst game-changing in their own right, can seem unaffordable luxuries in the Global South against a backdrop of hunger, poverty and health challenges for millions of people for whom advances in technology may not reach. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and measures instigated to stop its spread, thousands of Kenyans have lost their jobs and the livelihoods of many millions of Kenyans in the large and growing informal sector have been severely disrupted. This is why measures to address the pandemic and to recovery the economy have to be relevant and responsive to the needs and realities of the most vulnerable.

COVID-19 has influenced how we perceive the essentiality of different types of work: the market vendor, the delivery worker, boda boda riders (motor bike transport providers), the garbage collector, the domestic worker, the cleaner, the grocery attendant, the construction worker, and the tailor are as essential as the doctor, the pharmacist, the lawyer and the business person. Everything and everyone are interconnected – the formality and informality of work mean nothing when the survival of one depends on another. If indeed the country must adopt new digital tools and methods to adapt to the new reality posted by COVID-19, these tools must be accessible and usable to all sectors of work.

Digital inclusion as a national priority during and post COVID-19

A concerted national effort to harness and support community needs through emerging digital solutions could be a powerful tool to support economic recovery in Kenya as the country grapples with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. For a true digital transformation to take place, it necessary to recognize and address the barriers to technology from all users’ perspectives. Affordable and accessible internet enabled devices and internet services are some of the basic necessities to access digital technology, but according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, only around 1 in 4 Kenyans have accessed the internet. For the technologies to have an economy-wide impact, far more people must have access to basic digital tools and infrastructure.

There are, however, positive signs of change from both the public and private sectors: in Kenya, the Ministry of ICT Innovation and Youth Affairs is leading the way on closing the digital divide, and telecoms giant Safaricom has introduced a pricing model for 4G phones for as low as 0.20 dollars a day. But it’s clear that more stakeholders must come on board to make the acquisition of smartphones easy and affordable and likewise, for internet penetration to increase to the level where Kenya can fully tap into the economic gains digital solutions can bring, the cost of data must be affordable to the average Kenyan. With 1GB of mobile data costing between USD $0.50-1.00 per day depending on the service provider, this is more than many Kenyans living below the international poverty line can likely afford. Other significant barriers such as limited and inconsistent electrical power in many areas of the country must also be addressed, as should the accessibility of digital devices and education to historically marginalized groups such as people living in informal settlements, people without access to education and people living with disabilities.

On 2 May 2020, the UNDP Accelerator Lab in Kenya partnered with Konza Technopolis Development Authority to hold a webinar discussion on ‘Leveraging Tech to spur Decent work and Economic Growth during and post COVID-19’, drawing panelists from the public and private sectors, representing a wide cross-section of society. There was a vibrant discussion on how to ensure digital inclusion for all sectors, and in particular the informal economy, which presents untapped opportunities for employment and which will play a big role in the country’s recovery post COVID-19. It was noted that digital ‘gig economy’ apps are already giving Kenyans opportunities for autonomy and self-employment as well as aggregation of demand for services and products, and this trend is only set to continue.

Leading the discussion on how to increase the uptake of digital solutions through webinars such as this is part of a multi-pronged strategy for the UNDP Accelerator Lab to unpack and accelerate learning around innovation, particularly with regard to addressing youth unemployment in Kenya. This has come into greater focus in light of the impact of COVID-19 on the economy, and we want to hear from you. How can digital technologies benefit Kenya, and what do we need to do to get there? Send us your views and opinions on this subject at acceleratorlab.ke@undp.org.

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Authored by Caroline Kiarie-Kimondo, Head of Exploration at UNDP Accelerator Lab 

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