BIG INTERVIEW: Bitange ndemo

We have to think, tinker and share

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Bitange Ndemo is former Permanent Secretary, ministry of Information, who currently lectures on entrepreneurship and research methods at the University of Nairobi. He speaks on technology, culture, why high walls and metallic gates won’t save the rich, and the futility of the ‘#WeAreOne’ slogan
Bitange Ndemo is former Permanent Secretary, ministry of Information, who currently lectures on entrepreneurship and research methods at the University of Nairobi. He speaks on technology, culture, why high walls and metallic gates won’t save the rich, and the futility of the ‘#WeAreOne’ slogan
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You have written extensively on culture, entrepreneurship, youth and technology in your newspaper articles and blog posts. These fields appear to be so far apart…
Those fields are all inter-related. I have written extensively on culture, linking it to economic growth and I have looked at the theories of economic growth from the 18th century. In most cases, what they said is that, in addition to industrialisation, culture was vital. Technology played a key role in changing the culture of people of the Western World into what they are today. And even if you look at East Asia, they have and continue to leverage technology to refine their culture, and they are doing well.

How is this different from what is happening in Kenya?
Discussions with Kenyans reveal that this does not form part of the discourse, and this worries me a lot. We don’t talk about what culture can do for us.

How do you know this?
Take this example: I was recently invited to talk to a group of manufacturers. They wanted me to address the issue of kaizen – a Japanese method and philosophy of production. The Japanese culture is the opposite of ours. The first thing in their lives is their nation, followed by friends and then lastly the self. In Kenya, we begin from self and then friends and lastly the nation (or interchange the last two). This is where we go wrong.  With the world being the way it is, we must look into collaborations. You can’t succeed if you think alone.

Our approach does not look so good…
It doesn’t; it isn’t. And that is not the end of it.  We are dismissive in a massive way.  We all probably have people we have written off as “useless” or “unhelpful” in our lives; this is the wrong notion. No human being is useless. Yet our culture is such that we can dismiss people and say “these are useless”. In fact, if I say something that doesn’t sound smart to you, you’d laugh at me. A person from the West in the same situation would probably try to see it from my angle and would likely “get it”.

Remember Galileo, the Greek philosopher and physicist who said the earth is round? He was mocked for it. This does not look like a purely Kenyan or African problem.
True, it is not purely an African problem, but the mzungus learnt from that and many other such instances. Right now you can say something to a mzungu and s/he will try to understand where you are coming from. And until our culture begins to think about continuous change, we will not innovate much.

What is continuous change?
We have used our hands to till our land for centuries. The rest of the world has mechanised their farming and they talk of food security because they produce more than they need. We produce less than we need year in year out using the same old tired methods, and nobody gets angry or concerned that next year we need to do better. The situation is getting worse because when we were younger, a farmer could get 20 bags of maize from an acre of land – now they get 5 bags. Therein lies the problem; no one is asking pertinent questions that could give us the solutions to these problems. No one is asking how we can retain the 20 bags or do better. That is how innovation happens.  That is how you achieve continuous change. That is what we call productivity. In fact, the word productivity itself is not in any of our local languages.

Is that a problem?
It is. We need to dynamise our languages, so that when we say a word, everyone understands it in the same manner, or sees it as referring to a common thing. We fail to communicate because we have not localised some of these received terms or technological words. Our languages are almost static. The French, at the advent of the computer, decided on one word to use in reference to the computer. Regardless of the part of France you are in, it is one word, referring one and same thing. In our universities, we do not have institutes of the Luo language or institute of Kikuyu language or Kisii or Maasai.  Yet these are the places where we can create these names and begin to make received words dynamic.

Language is important but is it as critical as you put it?
Look at a simple expression like “breakeven point”. If you do not know this expression, you will never succeed in enterprise. Yet it does not exist in any of our local languages. I do not even think it exists in Kiswahili. Research shows that you can’t earn money if you plant one acre of tea. You must plant at least two because the breakeven point is about 1.5 acres. So the rural farmers in Kisii where the average land size is about 2 acres will not escape poverty. These farmers do not have the right information. That is it. A solution to dealing with poverty in this part of the country is hidden in linguistics.

So culture does play an important in solving our day to day problems…
It does, and sometimes it can be a hindrance. Let’s take Western Kenya, for instance. This is the one place where the sugar industry was seen (by the government/politicians) as a solution to poverty in the region. But this is very far from the truth. Kenya is not competitive in the sugar industry. Sugar is a by-product in Brazil, not a primary crop, and when it gets to the port of Mombasa in its processed form, it will still be at half the cost of production for Mumias. In other words, it is useless to insist on sugar as the solution to poverty in Western Kenya. Japan wants soya. The Japanese did a study of the sugar belt, from Bungoma all the way to Migori and found that it was equally viable for soya. And soya is a 1 trillion dollar business. I decided to work with the farmers, to teach them numbers and data – how much to expect from an acre, how many acres they need to break even, what costs to expect and other such matters. I simplified it for them.  This is the approach we need to adopt. A cultural shift from doing things without information to one where people do things armed with the right information to do the right things. The questions I tackled for the farmers included: “I am going to do soya farming; how much can I get from 1 acre? How much do other farmers normally harvest? How much will I sell this for? How much will I incur in terms of cost of production?”… This is what data and refined measurements do.

The South Africans have the idea of a Rainbow Nation, pushed by the departed Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in a bid to unite South Africans as one people rather than whites and blacks. In Kenya, we have the “We Are One” movement pushed by the government when, in reality, there are clear economic differences. Are such nationalistic rallying calls at all helpful?
It is a bad thing, I tell you.  And this is something that goes back to our culture of thinking about the self before thinking about everyone else. It is not even about socialism or communism policies. Even capitalistic societies like the US take care of its entire population if the rest of the nation is to be at peace. That is what a programme like ObamaCare for instance sought to address. It is the same thing that Theodore Roosevelt did when he said that America must tax the rich more to help the poor for peace to prevail. We can’t keep in the direction we are going now; it won’t end well. The concrete walls and steel gates will not help if everyone else has no shelter. The Japanese know that until the neighbour is fed, no one is safe; that the self can’t make any progress unless the society is progressing too.

Between the years of 2005 and 2013, you worked as Permanent Secretary in the ministry of Information and Communication. Within this period, most international technology giants started taking Africa seriously, especially post 2011. How did you handle this as Information and Communication PS?
We courted some of these companies and persuaded them to set up shop in the country. For us, it started with IBM; after that, three other companies followed them in including Philips. We needed IBM Research here. The government invested in IBM. We said that they would operate in the country and any IP from the work we would split 50/50 while they developed the capacity of at least 5 Kenyans every year until we developed our own capacity.

Were there any specific areas of concern?
Yes, we had three: Big Data Analytics, Next Generation Governments and Smart Cities.

With that kind of backbone, technology should play a significant role in solving some of the social, economic and scientific challenges the country faces then…
In the next five years, we are going to see explosive changes. We just begun and have not yet even scratched the surface in solving social problems using technology. In fact, we are taking too long to leverage technology to help us. As at now, we have started digitising government records, using technology to solve health challenges and in education and community upgrade projects… Soon, we will be using it for disaster management and to tackle more sophisticated social challenges.

Digitising government records to give the public access to information must have its challenges…
The challenge to me is in legislation. Government, through Parliament, has not passed the law on Freedom of Information and Data collection. Those two pieces of legislation are very important. Key in the sense that people are gathering our data (the data gathered in supermarkets, hospitals and other such service centres) and yet there are no laws to protect that data and its owner.  And if we are to get into commercialisation of data, the laws should be there to protect the citizens and keep data miners from compromising individual rights.

Continuity of projects in government offices is often interrupted when one key officeholder leaves. In your case, there are several projects that you initiated as PS and saw to the end while for others, your tenure ran out before they could conclude. Tell us about the ones you left mid-way, in terms of continuity…

The one I get asked the most about is Konza City project. Whenever I travel abroad, people ask me; “What happened to the Silicon Savannah.”  What shocked me the most was the in-flight magazine of South African Airlines where someone wrote that the Silicon Savannah is not just in Kenya – that it had died anyway – and that South Africa would revive it, and carry on with it. One simply cannot say that that was a ‘Ndemo project’. Vision 2030 is a long term vision and this was such a project. I don’t know why it has delayed. The other projects such as the Open Data project, automation projects like Huduma Centres are going on well.

What have you learnt from your entrepreneurship lecturing activities?
I decided to monthly lecture on entrepreneurship at iHub for free, and after a few months, I realised that we needed more than that. What I have learnt? Lots of things: One is that there are numerous business opportunities in Nairobi. Two that lack resilience is our biggest problem – we give up when we are almost making it. And three that fear of failure keeps most young people from following their business ideas.

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