While Information Technology enterprises are some of the fastest growing in urban centres, ICT services are still a pipe-dream for most Kenyan rural villages.
But some 'techies' believe Kenya’s next ICT revolution will originate from the villages. And they have invested in the villages remote already. This even before the government last month announced plans to revive the stalled Pasha centres under a digital villages programme.
The Pasha centres were introduced in 2010 by former Information permanent secretary Bitange Ndemo. They were to be run by entrepreneurs who would get subsidised loans from the government through a revolving fund. Most did not break even.
Five years ago, Mukuuri shopping centre in Embu East was a small collection of retail shops, with probably the only computer existing in the nearby boarding primary school.
This situation pained one young man who had few years earlier shuttled across the shopping centre daily to Muragari Primary School as a pupil.
Today, most residents of Mukuuri, young and elderly, operate social media accounts – Facebook and Twitter. Some youth have Instagram accounts too.
This is thanks to James Njiru, a 2009 diploma graduate in IT. Armed with one old computer, Njiru returned home with resolve to connect his village.
“We will power the next internet revolution in Kenya,” he says.
The residents now easily identify with Tamars Computer Services, Njiru’s start-up IT business.
They say the business has saved them the agony of travelling about 35 kilometres to Embu town for proper internet services.
Njiru identified the opportunity while pursuing his diploma in Embu College. He rented a small shop for Sh700 a month in 2010 and started offering typesetting and printing services armed with his computer and a simple desk-jet printer.
“I started this business by saving pocket money from my parents, which I used to buy my first computer and a printer. Instead of keeping the computer in college, I rented a small room in Mukuuri and started offering printing and photocopy services,” he says.
He says this was one of the most exciting moves he had ever made in his life.
“Rather than languishing in the streets looking for employment, I decided to return home to offer my village what they did not have,” Njiru says.
The self-proclaimed techie says he strongly believed the business would thrive in a place where technology was scarce.
“At first I thought my ideas were unviable because this kind of business relies on an internet connection to work.
“I did not give up. I bought a modem to introduce the people to the internet,” he says.
This was not easy initially because most internet users were students, who are mostly available during holidays. The elderly coffee and tea farmers did not have an internet culture, says Njiru, and it was almost hopeless to think they would embrace technology.
But four years later, he has opened email accounts for more than 300 people in the area. Even young people with no secondary education operate social media accounts like Facebook and Twitter.
“I think people are wired naturally and only need an opportunity to prove themselves,” he says.
The oldest of his regular clients is a 70-year-old coffee farmer called Njeru, who joined Facebook recently to stay in touch with his grandsons in Nairobi.
Tamars Computers Services has these days become a “big business” with 10 computers and two printers. Njiru has added other services such as computer applications training and video games.
“I’m very grateful because I can access internet and photocopy services after school without having to travel to Runyenjes town as I did previously before this business was started,” says Reuben Mugo, a teacher at the local Muragari Primary School.
Residents also process their Kenya Revenue Authority PIN applications, access and print pay slips, as well as other internet-related services, closer home than they did before.
Njiru sees his business as a community project. A few years ago, options for the youth were video dens where they would watch movies. Options have now broadened.
“Most children who patronise my place can switch on a computer and do some basic things like creating folders and typing, apart from playing games,” he says.
One of Njiru's clients, a Standard Six pupil, is the fastest typist in the village. He also has a Facebook account. Njiru has however banned social media surfing among school-going children. They are also not allowed to play games on weekdays.
Njiru says plans by Embu Governor Martin Wambora to offer free Wi-Fi (wireless internet) access across the county will boost computer literacy.