Kenya Builds Digital Villages And Lays the Foundation for a Brighter Future

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May 04, 2010

May 2010 Issue

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Digital libraries as information hubs
To push the agenda, the Kenyan government has transformed into an egovernment by computerizing all its operations. The government has made it easier for Kenyans to apply for services from the government through the internet. Today, Kenyans needing to apply for various services such as the provision of passports, driving licenses, birth certificates, and national identity cards need not make a trip to the provincial headquarters, they only need to download the documents and forms from various government websites.

"However, more needs to be done in the quest to develop local content that can be consumed by the general public for immediate benefit to them," notes George Gitau, a librarian at Strathmore University, one of the few universities in Kenya that has developed a digital library. "We have a wealth of information that is gathering dust in various private and public universities and at research institutions. This information could be applied by the village coffee farmer who would want to access information on the best coffee variety to plant in his region, the tomato farmer in another part of the country would need information on the best pesticide to use in his farm while the maize farmer in another part of the country would like to access an up-to-date market information so that he can sell his maize at the best price possible," he adds.

Strathmore University operates an advanced library management system that has been fully digitized. It is an open source program that was developed by the university to help students gain
access to publications produced by the institution. Dubbed the SU-Portal, it can only be accessed within the precincts of the university.

"Such a system can be expanded to include other portals from other leading institutions of higher learning as well as local research organizations such as the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI). The system can be an integrated portal that inter-links with these institutions where content such as research materials and papers can be posted for consumption both by the institutions as well as the general public," notes Gitau.

According to experts, such systems are critical in helping drive the ICT agenda in the country. How they are implemented and their relevance to the people are the keys to success. One such program is a Kes. 8 billion (U.S. $106 million) program being implemented by the Kenya Transparency and Communication Infrastructure Project (KTCIP) and is being funded by the World Bank. The KTCIP has developed a digitized program that will allow Kenyan farmers to get up-to-the-minute market information for their farm produce. This in essence eliminates middlemen who have been known to exploit farmers and reap higher profits while the farmers make a skimpy income from their hard work.

Developing Local Content
The challenge, according to Dr. Kavulya, is not only to have a digitized catalog system installed at the libraries but also to make a full transformation where existing and new material can be added continuously while placing an emphasis on locally produced material.

According to the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communications Dr. Bitange Ndemo, the landing of the fiber-optic cable in Kenya and the conducive business environment created by the government to enhance the development of ICT ought to be taken advantage of by both the Kenyan public as well as local and foreign organizations keen on developing locally-developed content. He says that "information from the government is not enough and we need people to develop high quality, locally-produced content that will be of much benefit to our people."

"The focus ought to be on the development of local content, because we have so much local content in Kenya and Africa that can be digitized for the benefit of our people. We have so much in terms of information on culture, literature, environment, history, anthropology, et al. that can be made available in such online databases as digital libraries for use by our people to advance their knowledge." Ndemo says that "currently, there is a huge demand for African-generated material, which is not readily available online and that is why we need to work together with the government and other institutions to develop the digital libraries around the digital villages concept so as to make these materials available not only to our people, but also to the rest of the world."

However, while this is a noble idea, issues to do with copyright abound with many local publishers and authors not keen on jumping onto the digital libraries bandwagon. "It is only a matter of enlightening the publishers and authors on how the system can work through regular subscriptions," according to Gitau.

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