Module Twenty Eight, Activity Three

Information and Technology in Kenya

Technology is central to being human; all societies in the world develop tools to improve their lives including ways of communicating across distance; Kenyan societies are no different. Long before the coming of the European colonizers who introduced modes of communication based on pens, papers, mechanics and electronics, Kenyans like other communities had used traditional means to communicate. These included: use of messengers, fire and smoke signals, drum beats, and horn blowing.

Messengers: They were trusted runners who were often sent particularly to deliver long and confidential messages. For instance, if a community was invaded, a runner was sent with a message to seek help from a friendly community. The messengers had to be physically fit, with a good memory, and fast in reaching their destinations. However use of messengers had a lot of shortcomings. These included: first, the messenger on foot could give the wrong message, forget it altogether, or even die on the way. Second, the greater the distance, the less chance there was of the correct message reaching the recipient, and third it was possible for the messenger not to find the recipient.

Fire and smoke signals: In a fire signal, fire was lit on raised ground e.g. on a hilltop, from where it could be
seen from a far off distance. In a smoke signal on the other hand, fire was lit using green tree branches or other damp material to give a
ot of smoke. The smoke would be controlled to emit a series of different signals. An agreed number of puffs represented specific messages. Fire and smoke signals were used to communicate trouble or distress among people e.g. warning on an invading eemy.

The limitations of fire and smoke signals included:

  1. It was difficult to start a fire on a wet weather.
  2. A fire signal could not send more than one message.
  3. A smoke signal was of little or no use on a cloudy misty day.
  4. Smoke could be blown away before the message was delivered or known.
  5. Sometimes, a signal was sent when nobody was on the lookout, which made it
  6. Because signals were nonverbal, it took long to interpret and understand them.

Drumbeat and horn blowing: They were mainly used in public announcements and to sermon people to important meetings. Each sound from the drum conveyed a particular message. The drums and horns could be beaten or blown during day and night.

Example of African drum used in traditional times for communication
Example of African drum used in traditional times for communication
Horns used for communication
Horns used for communication
Different types of horns that can be used to communicate
Different types of horns that can be used to communicate

History of mobile communications

Kenya's earliest telecommunications connections to the outside world were the submarine cables linking Zanzibar, Mombasa, and Dar-es-Salaam (Tanzania) laid by the Eastern & South African Telegraph Company in 1888. Internally, the construction of a telegraph network began with a 200-mile coastal line linking the port city of Mombasa with Lamu. Extension into the interior of the country began in 1896 in conjunction with building of the railway system, forming a dual "backbone" for Kenya's communications infrastructure. The extension of the telegraph line reached Nairobi in 1898, while the public telephone network began service in Nairobi (the capital city) and Mombasa in 1908. In Nairobi that year, only 18 telephone subscribers were connected. The telephone network expansion was gradually sustained and by 1991 there were about 200,000 fixed telephone lines in use throughout the country.

Mobile telephones were first introduced in the Kenyan market in 1992, but the real diffusion of this technology and of affordable services started in 1999 when the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) was established and CCK licensed Safaricom and Airtel Kenya companies to provide mobile services. These two operators are the major service providers, and have provided mobile connectivity to majority of populated areas.  By March 2016, there were 38.3 million mobile phone service subscriptions representing an 89.3% mobile phone penetration—a huge jump from the 200,000 land-lines in use in 1991. However this could be higher than the actual number of people with phones as there are people subscribed to two or more mobile phone service providers.  None-the-less, the level of mobile phone use in Kenya is impressive considering that the national population is estimated at just under 48 million in 2016.

Kenya has been nicknamed Silicon Savanna after Silicon Valley, the high-tech hub of California, due to its booming information, communications and technology (ICT) sector. However, two distinct things set Silicon Savannah’s tech boom apart from such hubs elsewhere in the world. First, Kenyans are designing products for use via mobile phones. This is because 99 percent of Kenya’s Internet subscribers, roughly about 24.7 million people by March 2016, access the Internet through their mobile devices. Kenyans didn’t begin to use the Internet on personal computers the way most people in developed countries did. Second, Kenyans are using technology to solve problems particularly relevant to Kenyans. Some of these innovations have been replicated in other countries. Examples of such innovations are discussed later in this section. However, the launch of mobile money in Kenya inspired many to be tech entrepreneurs and to launch start-ups. Therefore we start by discussing the concept of mobile money.

Mobile money transfer/mobile banking

Kenya is the pioneer of the world first mobile money transfer system. It is the world’s first cell-phone-based platform to realize simple banking services and cash-transfers. The system is referred to as M-Pesa, where “Pesa” means “money” in Swahili and the prefix “M-” refers to the use of a mobile phone to facilitate banking transactions. The M-Pesa system allows a subscriber to deposit, to withdraw, and to transfer cash using cellphones. It was launched in the whole country by Safaricom (Kenya’s largest mobile phone service provider) in March 2007 and served more than 450,000 customers already as of October 2007. Airtel, the second largest mobile phone service provider, also launched ‘Airtel Money’ in September 2011, which operates the same way as Safaricom’s M-Pesa. According to Communications Authority of Kenya, by March 2016, M-pesa had 16.3 million subscriptions and 100,744 agents, while Airtel money had 4.2 million subscriptions and 11,561 agents (agents provide mobile money services on behalf of the mobile phone service providers).

The use of mobile money in Kenya is growing each day and at least 3 billion Kenya shillings ($30 million) is transacted daily through the platform. For instance, according to the Central Bank of Kenya about 2.82 trillion Kenya shillings ($28.2 billion) were transacted via mobile money in 2015. The transactions include, but not limited to, depositing, sending, or withdrawing money, purchasing goods, paying bills, paying fares, buying mobile phone airtime, and transferring money to bank accounts. All transactions are authorized and recorded in real time using secure SMS, and are capped at 70,000 Kenya shillings ($700) per day per person. 

MPesa Mpesa 3 Mpesa 2

Airtel Money transactionsAirtel Logo

How the mobile money transfer system works

The process of mobile money transfer begins with real cash and an M-Pesa agent. A customer signs up, registers a personal mobile phone number and deposits money into the linked account at an agent store, which could be a mobile phone shop, a gas station or a supermarket. To send money, the user inputs a recipient's mobile phone number, the amount of money to send and a security code for protection. To withdraw funds, the receiver visits an M-Pesa agent and requests a withdrawal through his or her mobile phone. Both the receiver and the M-Pesa agent then receive a confirmation for withdrawal, which instructs the agent to give the customer cash. Bills can be paid and mobile talk time can also be bought through the platform.

Every M-Pesa customer has an associate M-Pesa account, separated from his airtime credit. Pooled M-Pesa balances are held as a unique count in a Kenyan bank. All the transitions are done through the simple SMS mean protected by a personal PIN-number, both at the customer and at the agent site. The M-Pesa system is simply accessible from the menu of the common handsets, after the replacement of the old SIM card with an SIM card with the M-Pesa menu. Many M-Pesa services are free, other have fees charged but with relatively very small rates with respect to the bank commissions.

The registration to M-Pesa (and the SIM exchange) is free and the account is directly manageable on the same SIM of the mobile subscription. With an M-Pesa account it is possible: to send money to a registered M-Pesa customer (charged service) or to an unregistered one (charged service), to withdraw cash from your M-Pesa account (charged service), to buy airtime for the personal phone or another phone (free service), to deposit cash (free service), to view balance, to change the language, to change the personal PIN code. Non M-Pesa users can withdraw sent cash for free. Like earlier stated, the Airtel Money service works in a similar way.

History of M-Pesa

M-Pesa was first conceived in London in 2003, by Nick Hughes, the head of social enterprises at Vodafone, which has 40% stake in Safaricom. Hughes had in 2003 made a proposal on delivery of financial services over mobile phone. In 2004 Safaricom was awarded match funding by the UK’s Department for International Development to develop services for extending the provision of micro-finance to the poor in East Africa. To this regard, M-Pesa was designed as a system to allow microfinance-loan repayments to be made by phone, reducing the costs associated with handling cash and thus making possible lower interest rates. The pilot of the M-pesa system started in 2005 funded a half by the matched funding and another half by Vodafone (the holding company of Safaricom). The pilot project partnered with the Commercial Bank of Africa and a micro-finance company, Faulu Bank (operating in Nairobi and in the rural neighborhood), which provided local expertise to design and test the micro-payment platform. After pilot testing it was broadened to become a general money-transfer scheme. M-pesa has since been extended to offer loans and savings products, and can also be used to disburse salaries or pay bills, which saves users further time and money (because they do not need to waste hours queuing up at the bank).

Pros of mobile money transfer

The innovative Mobile money transfer system offers some opportunities of development, especially offering a simple, secure and relatively cheap way to transfer money or perform payments. Other benefits include:

  • It extends in time the availability of banking services (some are dependents from the M-PESA agents, other are available 24h/day).
  • It creates a possible solution to the issue of the access of banking services by the unbanked, helping them in store their incomes. According to World Bank’s Global Findex Database, before mobile banking 80% of Kenyans were unbanked compared to 25% who were unbanked as of 2014.
  • It is relatively simple to use also for the uneducated people.
  • It efficiently overcomes some structural problems of the micro-credit organization.
  • The digital revolution allowed people to make financial transactions and money transfers from the comfort of their homes.
  • The lower cost left them with more disposable income, and they now had a secure way to store cash, even those working in the informal economy.
  • It creates opportunities for employment and new opportunity of business.

However, the mobile money transfer cannot be considered a complete banking service. This is because, it does not help in saving money, it does not give loans to start new activities and its incomes do not revert on the local communities.

Technology and Mobile Apps to solve problems

As stated above, different technologies and mobile apps have been developed tailored to solve problems faced by Kenyans in their day-to-day life. Such technologies have been developed in most sectors such as agriculture, wildlife, education, health, as well as apps to assist in disaster management. Some of these technologies and mobile apps are discussed below.


Ushaidi is the Swahili name for ‘testimony’ and it is one of the most significant software innovations to emerge from Kenya. This initiative was launched in response to 2007/2008 post-election crisis by Nairobi-based IT specialists Juliana Rotich Ory Okolloh, Erik Hersman, David Kobia, and Juliana Rotich when obtaining accurate, on-the-ground information became extremely difficult. This innovation was used in conjunction with Google Maps to map incidents of violence and peace efforts throughout the country, based on reports submitted via the web and mobile phones. The application allows large groups of people to submit crisis-related information via email, social media or text message, which can then be visualized on an online map.

Its popularity has led to the development of a platform that can be used in different global contexts. Ushahidi received global recognition after it was used extensively during rescue operations following the Haitian earthquake. It has also been used to monitor crises across the world, including, the Japanese tsunami in 2011 and violent incidents during Egypt’s 2011 revolution. It has become a new way of mapping a crisis and documenting what is happening. Ushahidi has received numerous international awards and grants for its work such as the Global Adaptation Index Prize in 2012, the MacArthur Award in 2013 as well as funding of $1.4 million from the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm.



Nairobi’s innovation hub (iHub) was inspired by Ushaidi initiative. It was launched in 2010 as an open space for start-ups, technology and innovation. Knowledge-sharing culture developed through collaboration, skill sharing, and mentorship is a key feature of the iHub community. Membership is open and free to those who work in information technology programming. iHub started as a coffee house in 2008, and it features a discussion space where people can log-on to the Internet and exchange ideas with fellow community members. At iHub software developers receive advice from web designers on how to make their mobile-phone applications more user friendly. When a developer feels ready to take his or her product to market, he or she can receive advice on how to create a business plan, or how to attract investors. IHub has about 15,000 members and it has incubated at least 152 companies.

In agriculture

Mobile phones have made a huge difference in the lives of Kenyan farmers where the agriculture sector is one of the largest employers-including millions of small-scale self-employed farmers. By serving as platforms for sharing weather information, market prices, and micro-insurance schemes, mobile phones are allowing farmers to make better decisions, translating into higher-earning potentials. Farmers are able to send a text message to find out crop prices in places thousands of kilometers away.  Examples of such apps are M-Farm and iCow


The app was launched by Jamila Abass, Linda Kwamboka and Susan Oguya, and gives Kenyan farmers real-time information to farmers on current market prices, weather alerts and local agro-suppliers. Farmers use text messages to get information on the retail price of their products, buy directly from manufacturers and find buyers. The app also enables farmers to create market linkages and increase their income by providing them with pricing information and a platform to aggregate their orders and supplies. Therefore, it provides farmers with food pricing information and is helps them to achieve fairer prices for their produce. It also brings farmers together to buy or sell their products in groups, helping them to gain access to larger markets, and carry out cost-benefit analyses based on their specific business profile and market prices in different countries before deciding when and where to sell the product. It also enables farmers to buy inputs directly from manufacturers at a reasonable price.

Most farmers face two main problems: firstly, they don’t always know the up-to-date market price for a particular crop. Unscrupulous middlemen would therefore take advantage of that and persuade farmers to part with their produce at lower prices. Using M-Farm, a farmer can find out the latest prices with a single text message. The second problem is that individual farmers would often struggle to sell their produce in small quantities. M-Farm allows subsistence farmers to post their produce onto the app, find others growing the same produce, and therefore make it easier to find a buyer. They also benefit from collective bargaining power. M-Farm is a low-tech app, relying on text messaging as its principal means of communication. President Barack Obama recognized M-Farm as an inspiring "hope" for the country during his July 2015 trip to Nairobi for the Global Entrepreneurs Summit.


Just like M-Farm, it is an app designed to help boost the productivity for small-scale dairy farmers in Kenya by offering tips on cow breeding, animal nutrition, milk production efficiency and gestation. It was invented by Su Kahumbu, and it allows farmers to register each individual cow, and to receive individualized text messages on their mobile phones, including advice for veterinary care and feeding schedules, a database of experts, and updated market rates on cattle prices. It helps smallholder farmers by providing them with innovative tools to reduce risks in their day-to-day activities production.

It’s pretty easy to get on to iCow. Farmers first register for the app on their phones by sending a message through their phone number. Afterwards, the farmers key in important information about their cows such as expected calving date and the weight of the cow. The farmers then start receiving timely and tailored messages, advice and information. They receive three SMS tips per week at a cost of three Kenyan shillings ($0.03) per SMS and on average pay half a dollar a month for each subscription. The app is also available to poultry farmers. The iCow app was voted by Forbes magazine as the best African mobile app in 2011.

Your Turn

This link contains different mobile agriculture applications; use it for this activity: other than icow and M-Farm, state 8 agriculture applications. From the 8 choose any 4 and provide a brief description of each.

Table-Blank mobile agriculture applications

In education 

Eneza education

“Eneza” is a Swahili word for “spread”. It was founded in 2011 by Kenyan teachers aiming to utilize SMS technology in the classroom with the goal of improving student learning. The technology seeks to provide quality educational resources to remote schools in Kenya. It provides students with a tool to study and learn, as well as a means to collect important data on students' learning outcomes, that can then be used to advise and inform both teachers and parents. Through the service a student is able to register for a course, access the studying material, take quizzes and tutorials, ask their tutor questions live and also get graded on the performance in all the subjects being studied. This online platform helps students revise for main exams virtually without the hassle of going for holiday tuition and can be done from the comfort of their own homes. Teachers can track students' performances as the data from the mobile phones is collected and fed back to a central location, and made accessible to teachers and parents. This data can then be used to assist parents and teachers in identifying students' strengths and weaknesses, enabling them to provide additional support where needed. Schools are also able to access countrywide data of students' scores from other schools. Web and smartphone versions of the technology have also been released.

Student Activity 

This link contains different educational technology programs in Kenya; use it for this activity.  Other than eneza education, state 10 educational programs in Kenya. From the 10 choose any 3, state when they were launched and provide a brief description of each.

Table-Blank Education

Your Turn

Assume you are requested to develop a mobile app for education to be used in your school. Make a list of what you would include to make the app a good learning tool.


In Health

MedAfrica: It is an app launched in November 2011 by Shimba technologies that helps Kenyans connect to reliable health care information. The app provides lists of certified healthcare providers. It also has a diagnosis feature where one can determine what they are ailing from by stating a list of thee symptoms; the app then gives a list of suitable hospitals and specialists and also provides information on the hospitals location. The app also provides First Aid advice, women’s health information and diet tips. It aims at improving health care solutions in Kenya and providing fast information. Read more and watch a video about the app via this link:

In wildlife


Fulcrum is a data collection app developed in St Petersburg in Florida that is being use to protect wildlife from poachers. The app was developed to collect geospatial data quickly and easily over a large area. Fulcrum users can share spreadsheets, photos and videos from different devices like a smartphone, and the app also converts paper documents into electronic records quickly. The counter-poaching initiative was piloted by the non-governmental International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and is designed to protect the most endangered Kenyan wildlife by identifying, mapping, and destroying poaching networks. The app is being used to track down the location of elephants and ivory smugglers by sharing the information quickly with game rangers before poachers strike. The data collected helps game rangers to plan their patrols. In addition rangers can use the cloud storage device to chart observations on a real-time map that’s circulated among law enforcement. Where any security threat is detected, it is promptly shared out for effective response from ground and air surveillance. The data collected can also be added to an open-source geospatial data analysis platform, which is used to track poaching incidents and identify hotspots where future incidents could happen. In a 2014 annual report the Kenya Wildlife Service reported 164 elephants were lost to poaching that year, and 302 in 2013.

Possible reasons for technological revolution in Kenya

The Kenyan government has in forefront of technology development. In 2009, the government helped bring in fiber-optic Internet providing a new and faster Internet connection. Prior to this, the Internet was only available via satellite and was too expensive for many users. After 2009, prices fell and, since then, the number of people using the Internet has increased to almost 25 million (number of people using internet in Kenya). Another contributing factor is that Nairobi (the country’s capital city) has positioned itself as an investor-friendly city by being open to aid agencies, development funds and foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Telecommunication infrastructure development has also played an important role. As earlier mentioned, the launch of mobile money in Kenya inspired many to be tech entrepreneurs and to launch start-ups.

In 2014, the Intelligent Community Forum crowned Nairobi the most intelligent city in Africa. Intelligent communities, according to the Intelligent Community Forum, are those which have taken "conscious steps" to create an economy that can prosper in the "broadband economy." Nairobi was the only African city to appear on their ranking of 21 hubs throughout the world. Some of the reasons for this award included the availability of mobile money payments, presence of incubation centers as well as university innovation centers, and strong emphasis on the importance of technology and ICT in schools.

Continue on to Activity Four, or select from one of the other activities in this module.