A few years ago election monitoring and reporting was a tricky, tiring and often thankless affair. Dealing with Kenya‘s elections processes in the last decade, in particular, has largely involved sending hordes of polling clerks, election observers and monitors, with paper files stashed in their underarms, to far-flung areas to help record the goings-on election and referenda. Apart from being slow, unreliable and erratic, such processes have proved risky for election officials especially if violence broke out.
But things are changing. Mobile phone technology is rapidly transforming the way these national and other crucial life-changing activities are carried out, bringing with it faster, reliable and credible relay of information from outlying areas.
Apart from elections reporting, the ubiquitous device, owned by nearly 20 million Kenyans, has also helped stem incidents of violence that have in the past rocked various parts of Kenya notably in 2007 elections. A lot depends on how transparent such processes as elections are but the mobile phone is taking a lion’s share of the contribution toward this positive change.
In a ground-breaking project in conjunction with the Interim Independent Electoral Commission (IIEC), Safaricom, Kenya’s largest network operator, the world’s leading mobile handsets-maker Nokia supplied over 18,000 Nokia 1680 phones to be used by the electoral body’s returning officers and clerks in various part of the country.
IIEC had picked Safaricom after, inviting Kenyan telecom operators for a partnership with it with the objective of running an efficient and credible referendum process. “Key to this was information management with planned innovation of using mobile and fixed data infrastructure to transmit results quickly and cost effectively. Safaricom responded with a fully fixed and data proposition to meet this need. The mobile data solution included 3G modems and 18,000 Nokia 1680 handsets,” says Mr. Kenneth Oyolla General Manager, Nokia East and Southern Africa. The Nokia 1680 is one of the most affordable, internet-enabled mobile phones and boasts of a long battery life.
Safaricom then installed specific elements on the GPRS-enabled handsets including a customized application with a special interface for submitting results. It was a basic interface that has a ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ options for feedback. The phones were then installed with an Internet Protocol (IP) address- a numerical label that is assigned to devices and which helps to uniquely identify each device.
The phones were also installed with an access point name (APN) which enabled the phone used by every presiding officer to be authenticated as genuine when they relayed results electronically to the computers at the tallying centre. As a result the IIEC was able to get timely feedback in its centre, hubbed at the Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi. By the time the clock ticked midnight of August 4 most of the results had had trickled from remote areas in Mandera and Malaba, near the border with Uganda.
“The sheer ubiquity of mobile phones is bringing with it one of the biggest leaps in history, in many spheres of our lives. Whether it’s the good, old text message or the new, snazzy features such as mobile chat- which are gaining huge popularity in Kenya and in Sub-Saharan Africa-the mobile phone is bound expand the possibilities. The revolution has just started,” says Mr Oyolla.
So what does the mobile phone revolution portend for people’s livelihoods? With progressively lower calling rates people are already interacting more on phone. In its latest quarterly report, covering January to March 2010, the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) says the total number of mobile traffic grew by 19.9 per cent from 4.2 million minutes in the previous quarter to 5.1 million minutes. This represents a 118.6 percent increase, compared to the same period of the previous year.
At the end of the 2009, the penetration rate of mobile service had risen to 49.7 per 100 inhabitants. This compares favorably the world average of 49.8 per 100 inhabitants, as rated by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), World Development Index 2009 from 2007 data. The recent tariff reductions by Kenyan mobile operators are destined to perk up these figures. Analysts say this is, potentially, good for the economy, with possibilities of people engaging in productive interactions such as seeking jobs, market-related requests and the like.
Soon, says Mr. Oyolla, mobile technology could play a significant role in detecting, mapping and responding to epidemics as happened in a recent polio outbreak in Kenya recently. With handset-makers like Nokia championing manufacture and use of low-priced, internet-enabled devices, players in the industry are expecting even more interactions on the mobile phone.
The mobile phone is already bringing unprecedented impact in other areas such as finance, education, health and environment. The talk of M-Pesa, revolutionary money transfer service pioneered by Safaricom, and a world’s first, has brought about ground breaking and positive effects to the Kenyan economy.
And in neighbouring Tanzania, Nokia is already providing technology leadership through Bridgeit locally known as Elimu kwa Teknolojia (Education through technology) in Tanzania using convergence as a platform for learning for children in developing economies, many of whom lack access to basic learning materials.
Mr Oyolla says the project, a multi-sectoral partnership with International Youth Foundation, the Tanzanian Ministry of Education and others, has brought about a “unique convergence of mobile telephony and satellite technology designed to deliver digital multimedia learning materials to teachers and students who otherwise would not have access to them. Plans are now well underway to kick this program off in Kenya before the end of the year.”
The mobile phone may have been alien to many Kenyans just a decade ago, but the socio-economic significance of this device might not meet its technological match in the next century.