Category Archives: kenya communications

Kenya’s Money in the Past: Digital Kenya

Digital Kenya, by Bitange Ndemo and Tim Weiss, charts the rapid emergence of Kenya in the world of technology. Through stories and interviews with people in the sector, you learn about risk-taking and making policy from humble beginnings back in the mid-1990’s when the whole country shared 32 kbps, and the then telecom Kenya Posts & Telecommunications (KPTC) monopoly declared internet services as being illegal. At the time, KPTC was connecting about 10,000 users to the phone network, and with 77,000 potential customers waiting, they envisioned a 5% tele-density in Kenya by the year 2015. The tele-density in 2015 turned out to be 88% thanks to rapid changes that came after fibre cables and the cheaper mobile phones emerged.

One story is a narration of how, as a peace agreement was being signed in February 2008 to end the post-election violence in Kenya, the ICT Ministry managed to secure a guarantee to enable the laying of the TEAMS fibre cable that ultimately changed the face of ICT in Kenya. This came after the ministry had stepped back from another long-discussed bureaucratic cable project – one called EASSY. This was one of the examples of government officials circumventing red tape for a good outcome. Another was the roll-out of M-Pesa which is also cited here, ahead of regulations and thanks to some individuals in government giving it their cautious blessing. Not all of them turned out well, and one case cited is of officials at the Postal Corporation sabotaging a land deal that would have led to the establishment in Nairobi of the headquarters of a multinational telecommunications organization.

There are many other stories that show issues of privatization, race, the lack of vision & finance, tech startups, the need for skills to scale, and the disconnect between local capital & the tech sector. It also shows the disconnect of ICT with both formal banking and also with the agricultural sector, two crucial links yet to be adequately bridged in Kenya.

Thanks to the Ford Foundation, the Digital Kenya book is available free of charge and a book download can be obtained from a dedicated site.

E-Government Moment: Part II

Stuff happening on the e-government sidelines
  • July 1 is the deadline for Matatu’s and other Public Service Vehicles (PSV’s) to switch to cashless payments of accepting fares, in lieu of hard currency. PSV’s are meant to have signed on to services like Google & Equity’s – BebaPay or be in breach of the law.  It’s not expected to be smooth sailing considering the slow uptake of cashless systems among smaller matatus within  Nairobi, and it’s possible that after taxes, the minimum fare will be more than Kshs 30.
  • June 30, (today) is also the deadline for Kenyans to file their tax returns. This had been a largely academic exercise of submitting paper forms that the revenue authority (KRA) was unlikely to ever go through, and had even been discarded. But in rejecting a bill, parliament re-opened this tiresome exercise. This year, KRA has advertised its website, as the only way for Kenyans to file their taxes – but the site and service still has many challenges, including inaccessibility. 

  • While the schools laptop project seems to have stalled at the procurement stage, some $200 million has been allocated in the 2014/15 budget to procure some laptops. More visible in terms of making the government digital, has been the procurement by by county governments and parliament of iPad’s and other devices for leaders to use.
  • In the banking sector, June was a turning point for the migration to debit and credit cards to Chip-and-PIN enabled cards. While the benefits to consumers appear negligible (less fraud identity than swipe cards) and there is a cost of about $1.80 to 3.20, there has now been a liability shift, and going forward, costs associated with fraud involving non-EMV compliant cards will be borne by the issuing bank (currently they are borne by the acquirer/merchant).
  • In terms of digital television, there’s one year left for the analogue to digital migration in Africa. However, most countries are unlikely to make this deadline. Read more.
  • The Kenya Government has automated registration of companies by launching a one-day registration of companies system to improve efficiency at the state law office.

Nairobi New Media Stocks, 5 Years Later

It’s been over five years since a wave of new media stocks appeared at the Nairobi Stock Exchange  (NSE) including Access Kenya Safaricom, and Scangroup. They are all in the news this month, but for different reasons.
For Access Kenya, the deadline for shareholders to vote on a takeover by Dimension Data was extended by a day due to a national Holiday last week, However, Dimension Data just announced that they have received acceptances from 75% of shareholders and approval the Competition Authority of Kenya and will now proceed with the takeover which will lead to a de-listing of Access Kenya at the NSE.
Safaricom shares seem to have stabilized in the Kshs 7-8 price range after spending quite a bit of time at Kshs 3/=, well below the IPO price of Kshs 5/= in 2008. This disillusioned a lot of retail shareholders who bought their shares hoping to quadruple them when they listed but then had to sell them at a loss. The company has since weathered many changes but remains the market leader in Kenya, thanks largely to M-Pesa and the floundering of their rivals (Orange, Airtel and Essar).
Scangroup got an investment from the WPP, in 2008 who gained a controlling interest for about $18 million. The shares traded at about Kshs 72, and while they have lagged other shares this year, this is still a tremendous gain from the IPO price from Kshs 10.45.
This week, WPP announced, that they would seek to increase their stake to just over 50% in a deal worth about $95 million. This will be done through a combination of cash, new shares and exchange of partnerships in joint companies (Ogilvy & Mather, Ogilvy Africa, Ogilvy (in Kenya, Tanzania, Mauritius) Millard Brown (East Africa, and Mauritius), and Hill & Knowlton (East Africa and Africa) which will become full subsidiaries of Scangroup over the next one year.

Urban Inflation Index: June 2011

Comparing changes to three months ago, last year and June 2009 in an interesting quarter with price swings in food, currencies and fuel.

Less Expensive:

Nothing really that’s being measured

About the Same:

Communications: Cell phone rates are still low, and while Safaricom appear to have survived the Airtel-initiated price war, recording a marginal full-year profit drop of 12% down to ~$220 million on increased revenue of 12% to ~$1.1 billion, the government is getting anxious about the price wars and impact on mobile companies and tax revenue.

Last week, Kenya’s President seemed to direct for an end to the mobile price wars in Kenya. Also Essar’s Yu Mobile has denied they are considering an exit from the Kenyan market while Safaricom and France Telkom (Orange) are about to sign a tower sharing agreement.

More Reading – The Economist has an interesting article on the India mobile phone market which may explain the vision the direction that Bharti Airtel is taking in Africa.

Other food item: Sugar (2 kg. Mumias pack) is at Kshs 190; a year ago it was 200, and the year before was 175. It will likely stay the same until the COMESA sugar import ceiling ends in 2012.

More Expensive:

Fuel: A Litre of petrol fuel is now Kshs 114.93, which is 26% higher than a year ago and 58% higher than two years ago. The fuel sector is characterized by accusations and allegations every other week about favouritism, manipulation of prices & shipments, corruption, capacity etc. – all while the price continues to rise.

Staple Food: A 2 kg. Unga pack (maize flour), which is used to make Ugali that is eaten by a majority of Kenyans daily today costs Kshs. 130 at Uchumi. This is 83% higher than the 71 of a year ago – and two years ago it was 92, the year before it was 73. The price fluctuations may have some artificial influence by maize farmers holding on to their crop in the hope of a better price from the Government and millers. Shrugging this off, the Government today waived tax on maize that will be imported between June and December 2011 to avert a food disaster in the country.

Foreign Exchange: 1 US$ equals Kshs. 89.37 compared to 80.6 last year and 77.9, two years ago. It is reported to have not seen such lows since 1994 when Goldenberg scandal exploded and shook the Kenyan economy. However, while focus is on the US dollar (which this month exchanges for less than a Canadian dollar) other currencies are also at levels not seen in years – like the Sterling Pound at 146, Euro at 129, and South Africa Rand at 13.

Utilities: Electricity: Many customers of KPLC have been converted to pre paid electricity and the only to get a breakdown of costs is by buying a token at a Kenya Power office. It’s much more convenient to re-load or top up electricity by mobile phone payments (M-pesa or Airtel money) and a payment of Kshs. 500 obtains 29 units of electricity – compared to 51 units for the same amount two months ago, – implying that electricity costs 43% more!
Meanwhile the city’s other major utility provider, the Nairobi Water Company also plans to convert some of its customers to a pre-paid billing system to stem illegal connections and improve revenue collection.

Entertainment: A bottle of Tusker beer (at a local pub) costs Kshs. 140 ($1.55). However, the recommended retail price of a Tusker bottle went up to Kshs. 95 in April (after last being hiked by 38% to Kshs. 90 after the June 2010 budget speech) and beers currently sell for between Kshs. 150 – 220 in most Nairobi pubs.

Tusker was re-launched in a new bottle in April, but that rebrand has received mixed reviews with some patrons calling the bottle a Probox after a Toyota station wagon that has a similar boxy shape.

EABL is also in the process of severing ties with SAB Miller a rival South African brewer, after many years of a cease fire & cross ownership – and they are expected to soon renew their beer battles in both Kenya and Tanzania.

A to Z Chat with Michael Joseph

Ten days before he retires as CEO of Safaricom, Michael Joseph gave a talk at the Nairobi iHub on his ten years at the helm of the company, on the day to day job, and the up’s & down’s of the job in taking the company from a literal zero to hero.

A recap


  • Safaricom started with (inherited) 17,000 customers, 9 cell sites in Nairobi no billing system, switch in Extelecom House, 5 Vodafone employees and 55 Safaricom staff deployed from Telkom (not chosen) – all working in a 3 bedroom flat at Norfolk Towers. Has little cash (started with $20 million from Vodafone, and paid $10 million for a switch leaving the balance for salaries & rents) and launched on 23 October 200 (Saturday) and on Monday morning network collapsed (blamed on IT person).

Crazy Kenyans: 

  • This was a theme in his talk of marketing in Kenya.
  • Family & friends the average Kenyan calls 2.3 people, a fact he pointed out to his France Telecom (Orange) counterpart when they launched a family & friends promotion in which orange customers could call 5 people for 1 shilling per minute. The (forever) promo has since been discontinued.
  • Free credit – a promotion to give away all the subscribers Kshs 200 free credit was a major mistake and after it was bungled by an IT person in Dubai, led to 5 days of congestion. Lesson learnt – don’t surprise customers.
  • When okoa jahazi was launched, 1.7 million applied, even those who had credit and didn’t need it (crazy Kenyans love new things)


  • Media don’t understand it, people expect after companies invested millions of dollars in undersea cables, internet prices would drop by 90% the next day. They still have to have a redundant network, and a network is pensive to maintain. They have 4 cables to Mombasa, and every day (Chinese) road contractors are cutting fibre without any punishment. Since 3 cables land at the same point in Mombasa, they will land points in Kilifi and Dar es Salaam for redundancy.
  • He regrets not investing in metro fibre 4 years ago, which they are now leasing.


  • Expectations: Safaricom expected to have 400,000 customers in 5 years, with about 50% of the market (against Kencell’s 50%). Had their first million customers in 2003, second in 2004, and by growing ½ million customers a month, is now a billion-dollar company.
  • The company growing at 20 – 25% a year; he used to report to 2 owners, now has over 700,000 (including his secretary ) who bought shares expecting the price to triple to 20 shillings. Safaricom has to balance their needs and revenue, and are still investing (they have the only 3G network in Kenya despite what their competitors say) while competing with Zain/Airtel’s subsidized/risky price cuts, and Essar who have petroleum and steel.
  • Competition: the battle with Zain/Airtel is being won: their subscriber numbers have not dropped – and while revenue has dropped, minutes (usage) has gone up as has traffic into the network and they will watch their costs.
  • Finances: With the first $20m spent, they had to borrow money. They were to get a Belgium export credit loan if they bought equipment from Siemens, but since shareholders would not sign guarantees, Safaricom had to pledge their network (which at the time was not strong enough to manage their subscriber base, but when he signed equipment was shipped and this took away their congestion problems (at that time)
  • Green initiatives: They are greener now than before, have 60 sites running on wind power (backed by generator). Their main concern is not their data equipment, but for air conditioning to cool batteries, so are always looking at new ways to cool the batteries – e.g. bury batteries in the ground, and new (but pricey) batteries from Canada that don’t have to be cooled. Their HQ has smart systems, so lights go off when no one is in the room. They can do more, but local wind generator cost $80,000, and the ones from India that cost $20,000 are easily toppled by Kenya’s wind gusts. They are looking at solar sites, but again need air conditioning for batteries.
  • Investment decisions: They would start in Nairobi and Mombasa then looked at expanding the market. They measure ROI every six months, expect payback form a base station in 1 year – and 80% payback in 6 months. While they outsource physical maintenance – towers, lights, fencing, fuel, power remains a big cost – they have 5,000 generators to run when electricity (KPLC) cuts off.
  • Outsourcing strategy: he is not a fan of this as outsourcing partners don’t reinvest until they have to. He said Bharti Airtel EBITDA in India is down from 45% to 35% this year because they outsourced a lot of key costs, which are now coming back. Safaricom may outsource network management, but not outsource customer care because quality will drop.


  • They have a team of 40 people who spend time looking around the world for new ideas, and with the Vodafone group e.g. sambaza was already in Sudan & Egypt – and have had great successes like Sambaza, Okoa Jahazi, M-Pesa and M-Kesho.
  • Innovation without disruption says the company is very innovative in the mobile space and they innovate to make money, not for innovation space, as his goal is to deliver to shareholders. He takes pride that the company has won international awards, in Silicon Valley, not the UN.
  • Local developers when vendors want to sell new ideas, Kenyans write to them with their new great ideas, -but everyone has to sign their legal waiver to protect the company from being sued.
  • On revenue share, his belief is that Safaricom should get the lion’s share – developers will be using their airtime, customers, marketing, distributors and collection method so it should be 80:20; if you want to keep 80%, go to Zain. But sometimes people can get good splits with Safaricom e.g. he did not believe ring back tones would make money, so mistakenly signed a deal that gave most of the money to developers.
  • Safaricom has not stolen anybody ideas – they have been sued a few times and won every time because they document everything. Also, many ideas belong to nobody, and while someone claims they invented m-kesho is his (MJ) personal idea – and Safaricom have enjoined themselves alongside Equity Bank, who are being sued by an inventor.

Key decisions:

  • Pre-paid billing: could not afford a post-paid billing system, so they opted to go for pre-paid customers and bought a (cheaper) prepaid system that cost $200,000 – in hindsight was a key decision.
    Per second billing: he made the decision to bill per second even though per minute billing generated 20 – 25% more per call. He did not have scientific proof but had seen it in South America and felt his market was the mwananchi (ordinary person) who would use airtime in small increments.
  • Customer service: was free & 24/7 – which was a good decision because people don’t read phone instructions booklets. it was not very expensive and they hired 200 university graduates. People then were even calling from Kencell and today people still call to ask how to send SMS.
  • Guiding principle – do it because it makes financial sense. Safaricom needs to be seen as a Kenyan company, with all their spend is in Kenya, unlike their competitors who are purely foreign-owned. If Safaricom, has to outsource, he insists that the company have to have an office in Nairobi or he won’t buy from them. He mentioned Karanja Macharia of Mobile Planet has done very well by being a local partner and who won over foreign SMS firms.


  • Best advice was from a boss in Scotland – a leader has to make decisions, don’t be afraid to make them, (e.g. asking people to leave the company) and if you’re right 7 out of 10 are right, you are doing well. He considers himself a benevolent dictator, who while he consults internally, makes the decision, he sees external consultants having no responsibility for their advice. He admits he has made wrong decisions (as an engineer in charge of marketing for the company)
  • When a competitor changes your business plans: don’t panic, and reassure your people; they had studied airtel in Sri Lanka and saw how they came in with low prices and ‘destroyed’ the industry to a level that the government had to intervene. They have had a measured response – they could have dropped prices further, but their promotions are working.
  • Lessons learnt: (i) you won’t learn anything from a book (ii) have absolute integrity (iii) lead from the front – being a leader is not about being seeing at team building exercises or having your name on the door (iv) research – if you don’t know what you’re doing, act like you know


  • Vodafone won £1 million DFID (UK) award for deepening financial penetration for the unbanked, which they also had to match financially – and they were to develop a system for the disbursement and repayment of microfinance loans. They tested in Thika for 6 months and realized that it had more potential as a money transfer tool, and they launched M-pesa in March 2007.
  • M-pesa success has not come from technology, but from the distribution network –(20,000) points around the country

Role of government: 

  • GoK should play an enabling not punitive role as a regulator. But what is enabling about getting a license? Vodafone paid $55m for a license to operate in Kenya and another $25m for 3G. Their competitors have failed to beat Safaricom and run to the government to complain about Safaricom’s dominance. Safaricom opposed the CCK regulatory rules as unfair – and he wondered why EABL, Bidco and Kenya Airways (all with 80-90% e) were not subject to such rules – and why the government was sending the wrong signal to investors by seeming to crack down on Safaricom
  • Right regulator: ICT is going to create jobs, and has a good PS now, but GoK has to pick the right people to run the industry, not people who happen to be married to a relative of the president or come from his town (he said he told this to Kibaki and got a good laugh).
  • Kenya as a BPO centre: Kenya should be careful about investing heavily in this as a pillar of vision 2030 as this as it is l very fickle, and there is no loyalty you’re the flavour today, but what happens tomorrow? Can’t rely on time zone and English speaking skills, as companies will still take away their business to the next country to offer an incentive or when things go wrong. E.g. Delta air moved their outsourced customer service from India back to the US, when customers complained they could not understand the CS agents

Safaricom vs. Banks:

  • M-pesa is unregulated; when they got into it, there was no law covering that, but they sought and got ‘blessing’ from the mobile and banking regulators.
  • Big (foreign) multinational banks who had shut down rural branches abandoning their customer opposed m-pesa and fought in government & parliament and would have succeeded till he persuaded acting finance minister John Michuki to green light m-pesa.
  • M-kesho allows people to save in small increments, and get interest immediately is a revolutionary product (he came up with), and in 3 months new 700,000 savings accounts, (which was more than all the saving accounts that existed in the country – and money that was not there has moved from the informal to the formal banking sector). On M-kesho had to partner with a bank (did not want to hold people deposit/too much regulation) and signed on with Equity Bank who have nationwide reach to make it work and took the risk. This exclusive deal which ends in May 2011
  • Warning to banks: he has told the banking community that retail banking will disappear in 10 years time. Customers will not go there (to brick & mortar branches) except for loans, as ordinary banking will be on the mobile phone whose convenience is unprecedented. E.g. The biggest transaction days for M-pesa are when schools reopen (previously people would be queuing in banking halls for expensive money orders)

Social Media:

  • He is not a fan of social media because people can take advantage of anonymity to write lies about him. He is not on Facebook or Twitter, but his successor is, and the company uses these tools a lot for marketing.
  • SMS is a very dangerous phenomenon – and during Kenya election violence, they found many of the hate messages did not originate in Kenya, (came from South Africa). Safaricom responded by ending out peace SMS to subscribers, which was also controversial