Technology guru’s walk through the decades of computer revolution in kenya

Tech guru

The portable computers that first came to Kenya like these ones were as big as sewing machines. They had been shipped in by ICL in 1971 and deployed in the control room of East African Safari rally at City Hall.

When I arrived in Kenya in 1977 as the General Manager of British multinational computer company ICL, I had already been in the computer business for a decade.

I’d been brought up feeding batches of 80-column punched cards into card readers that were attached to main-frame monsters, at the other end of which giant line-printers spewed out endless stacks of print-outs – all in freezing air-conditioned rooms.

 What a world away from tablets and smartphones it was, and just a generation or so ago.

It may come as a surprise to learn that by the 1970s quite a number of organisations in Kenya were using computers.

In fact, the first “tabulating machine” (as they were then called) to enter the country was in the late 1940s, with the railways.

And by the time I landed here, what was to become this major customer of mine was operating its own East African network, with paper-tape based terminals spread around the East African region.

The Treasury and the Customs Department, Nairobi City Council and the University of Nairobi, the Post & Telecommunications and the Power & Lighting corporations, Kenya Commercial Bank and others in the public sector, were all my customers, along with a few local companies and several subsidiaries of multinationals.

Off-the-shelf software packages were completely unknown in those days, so users employed their own large teams of systems analysts, programmers and operators… all to carry out what today we would consider very basic data processing: accounts, payroll, stock control and the like.

Technological breakthrough

In the late 1970s, the main vendors sharing the market were ICL, IBM, NCR and Olivetti.

The first two supplied giant mainframes (today’s servers), while the latter offered small – and very noisy – electro-mechanic accounting machines.

With the 1980s came extraordinary technological breakthroughs, and as so often in this field new players crashed onto the scene.

Upstart vendors started offering lower-cost mini-computers that were much easier to programme and to use, and the first “Visual Display Units” (“VDUs”) began to appear – along with ready-made software packages.

When front-office tellers first at Middle East Bank and then at National Bank of Kenya started serving their customers using VDUs (screens, in today’s language!) transaction times were slashed.

It was magical, thought their long-suffering customers. Like something out of a movie.

Meanwhile the omnipresent clattering telex machines, with their rolls of punched paper tape, had begun giving way to fax machines – but not before the first adopters suffered inordinate delays from the ultra-cautious telecommunications regulator in awarding the necessary approvals for use.

In 1980, when my company introduced the word processors that led to the eventual demise of the typewriter, we had to explain how these clever machines enabled users to edit what they had typed on a screen, and only when they were happy with what they had keyed in would they press the print button.

It was at about this time too that the soon to be ubiquitous PC made its appearance. In 1982 my company launched the Osborne, the world’s first portable computer.

It was the size and weight of a sewing machine, with a tiny screen, and when not too long after smaller and lighter devices hit the market, the Osborne became disparagingly known as a “luggable”.

As in many other countries, there was concern that computers were “labour-saving devices”.

And so, in order to discourage the importation of such allegedly job-replacing machinery, the combined import duty and sales tax was raised to a staggering 143 per cent.

The then policy with regard to computerisation was to go slow on investing in these anti-social objects.

The government home for what we would now call ICT was the Ministry of Transport and Communications, where the communications focus was almost exclusively on privatising the monopoly state telecommunications provider and liberalising the sub-sector.

The whole field of IT, the business of using hardware and software to increase productivity and competitiveness, was ignored.

And when the launch of the Internet gave rise to the phenomenon of e-mails, their use was for long restricted within government, with the bureaucrats claiming they posed a security risk.

Gradually though, it became clear to enough people in government that advancing the use of technology was unavoidable, and indeed critical to the progress of the country.

Indeed then as now there were plenty of skilled Kenyans in the ICT industry: among vendors and consultants, as well as users.

These were largely in the private sector, and most significantly among the international organisations that were based here.

As a result, private sector usage – despite the high cost of hardware and software (thanks to the heavy taxes) and serious problems with power – was often extremely impressive.

National enabler

Computerisation in the public sector remained slow, however.

Too few people – not least at the most senior levels – understood what it was all about, and many feared the transparency and accountability that inevitably accompanied its introduction.

It was only at the turn of the millennium that government finally began to take IT seriously as a national enabler.

At that time the government embarked on a national planning exercise called the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP), in which ICT was for the first time identified as a sector of the economy to be studied in its own right, and requiring comprehensive policies.

I was a member of the ICT Sector Working Group that worked on these policies, in which there was representation from both government and the private sector.

 As a result of our many meetings, we came up with a four-pronged approach to ICT strategy development, comprising policy; legislation and regulation; infrastructure and software systems; e-government and human capacity building.

It was only later, however, that ICT was allowed its own ministerial home, hence ensuring permanent national focus.

 Today it is difficult to imagine how hard and for how long – and till how recently – we had to struggle for our leaders to take ICT and its usage seriously – and not just those in government.

For a long time most CEOs in the private sector over-delegated anything to do with computers and automation to their IT managers, who in turn were almost exclusively techies… whose jargon completely baffled and alienated their bosses.

The result was that the two groups rarely communicated with one another, and so little wonder that many ICT initiatives under-performed relative to expectations.

More recently, organisations have been expecting their heads of ICT to devise and implement ICT strategies that support overall strategy.

 With this broader responsibility came more elegant titles, such as “Chief Information Officer”, which showed that the function was beginning to take its overdue place in the C-suite.

When I first came into the industry in the late 1960s, those responsible for ICT were known as “Data Processing Managers” – a reasonable description of their jobs.

Later they adopted the title of “Computer Managers,” to my mind putting undue emphasis on the hardware rather than on what it was meant to do.

I should add that, along with the exalted CIOs, we find others running in-house ICT activities who do little more than scurry around acting as glorified (sometimes not even glorified) handlers of help-desks.

There’s so much that we now take for granted, as though we have always had access to whole suites of integrated web-based systems, instantly and permanently accessible from all kinds of devices.

In writing about the history of ICT in Kenya, there’s little need to devote space to more recent developments, however dramatic.

The continuing convergence of technologies, bringing music and video into our computers and just about everything into our tablets and phones, is something we live with as increasingly normal.

The advent of extraordinarily powerful Internet search engines and of omnipresent social media networks already seems long-established.

So, after half a century of dramatic ICT developments, have we arrived at some final technological destination? Of course not.

There is much more to come, with the next frontier for Kenya being the proliferation of laptops in our schools.

I look forward to writing another article on the further evolution of ICT a decade from now, looking back on those primitive days of 2013 when children were still being taught without the benefit of being connected to the Internet.

The readers of 2023 will find it hard to imagine what it must have been like.




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