ATM fraud: Forget EMV; Try Mobile Money

This christmas did not pass without much drama for many Kenyans. Banks had for some days before the holidays sent what looked like panic notifications advising customers to change their ATM card PIN numbers. Although I don\’t recall being a targeted recipient of the \”Change your PIN\” plea by my bank, good old twitter amplified the message at some point on 23rd and 24th December.

As fate would have it, having been unable to scamper for the seemingly account-saving change of PIN, Christmas eve would be the day fraudsters would hit my account. In the resulting helplessness of things, where else to go but good old twitter to share the experience with the rest of the world?

So off went the message, if only to tell fellow Kenyans that the earlier \”Change your PIN\” messages were not to be taken as jokes. Some of what followed would become history with some coverage on Citizen TV.

When old friend Henry called me up for an interview on the fiasco, one key message was in my mind to tell their TV audience. That message was;


\”Using mobile money is comparatively safer than using ATM cards\”.

Obviously my message did not come out in the interview – it must have been so under developed in my mind that the editors could not infer much from what I said. Or perhaps the story needed to link better with the apparent agitation by Kenya Bankers Association and Pesa Point for banks to migrate their ATMs and card systems to the Europay, MasterCard, Visa (EMV) standard. The EMV platform also seems to be called the \”chip and pin\” system by journalists. The more I thought through my mobile-money-is-better message, the more the questions to myself piled on.

To begin with, lets see what technological challenges the fraudster has; :-

For ATM skimming; the kind of fraud that has apparently hit many Kenyans to happen, the fraudster has to have accessed the victim\’s account details – which details are usually encoded in the black magnetic strip on the back side of the card. The fraudster has also to somehow discover the victim\’s four digit PIN number related to the card; which is never stored among the other details in the card – in the case of magnetic strip cards. In short, armed with the information in the magnetic strip, the fraudster makes a clone of the victim\’s ATM card and the only other thing they need is the victim\’s pin number after which they can do anything the victim can do with the account at their safest, favorite ATM.


To setup their trap for gathering the above two pieces of information, fairly common place technology is used. In both cases of the magnetic strip ATM card, the fraudster has to overcome two technological challenges; that of cloning the information in the card and that of knowing the original card\’s PIN number.

In both cases, the technological challenge of knowing the victim\’s PIN number is easily surmountable with diminishing size and increasing abilities of spy cameras. The fraudsters\’ other option is to overlay a look a like key entry pad on the ATM\’s original pad.

To gather account information on the card matching the PIN acquired, the fraudster needs only to acquire a magnetic strip reader that can be appended in a disguised manner to the ATM\’s authentic reader. Similarly, a smart card reader can be appended to the authentic ATM reader in the case of EMV cards. Once the the information is read (copied) by the fraudster, their next move is to write (paste) it to their own \”fake\” card which becomes a clone of the original one in the victim\’s wallet.


For curiosity click here so read a fraudster\’s how-to – only if you will not join in the crime.

The human action challenge

Since most, if not all ATMs in Kenya have guards assigned to them at all times, the fraudster also must plan to either bribe away the \”soldier\” or somehow get the guard to sleep so that they get ample time to install paraphernalia on the ATM. The other cheaper way to get pieces of the information required by the fraudster is to be friends with a rogue bank (card center) staff or promise to share the earnings of the venture with them. For my discussion\’s sake I shall consider this a human challenge and not a technological challenge – the later being the substantive discussion here.

The SMS alert challenge (StanChart Scenario)

In my opinion, the fraudsters\’ greatest challenge for the magnetic stripe case is that of the SMS alerts sent to the victim\’s phone detailing when and where a transaction takes place. That allows the user to act promptly in response to the attack. SMS alerts related to Point of Sale purchases usually bear  names and locations of merchants where transactions take place. Specific location information is surprisingly missing in the StanChart SMS alert messages for ATM withdrawals. The alerts do not specify the exact location of the ATM which could assist in \”nubbing\” fraudsters if for some lucky convergence of factors there are contactable, and cooperative police officers or publics in the vicinity of the crime – among other factors. A workaround for the fraudsters in the StanChart case seems to revolve around the delivery time of SMS alerts. How SMS alerts seemed to get to victims 5 hours after the fraudulent transactions whereas under normal circumstances such notifications are received instantly is a puzzle. 

The Cloning Challenge

Data on magnetic stripe cards does not have \”copy-protection\” features and hence cloning of cards based on this technology is fairly straightforward for the criminals. This is not the case for EMV cards. At the point of making a copy of the original cards, fraudsters face a tougher technological challenge of cryptography. This is where banks, merchants and card issuers implement the EMV card system. Cryptography under the EMV standard prescribes a process where data in the smart card can be protected against modification or cloning. This is one of the features that EMV proponents have successfully used to rally banks the world over (including in Nigeria) to transition from the magnetic stripe – with Kenyan banks being left behind.

Although the EMV card system carries reduced chances of ATM fraud, Rober Murdoch  and other researchers at University of Cambridge have exposed a couple of vulnerabilities with EMV implementations. These include the wedge vulnerability, the pin entry device vulnerability, and relay attacks. Below is a UK video narrating two real life fraud experiences and a re-inaction of the fraud against an EMV card


Th more scary concern here is the insistence by EuroPay, MasterCard and Visa that liability for fraud affecting an EMV (Chip and Pin) card implementation MUST be borne by the cardholder. I leave that fight for the consumer rights activists to pick up as they seem to have success with the Digital TV migration issue case.

Mobile Money – Technologically Simpler, and Superior?

An now to my theory about better safety in Mobile Money withdrawals and purchases: This is building on a not so old article in Kopokopo\’s blog. In the article, Ben Lyon argued that it is safer to pay with M-Pesa than using credit / debit cards. Ben\’s argument relates well for \”point of purchase\” situations among ATM card holders and everyone needs to take note of that to begin with.

It can be argued for the specific case of \”Point of Withdrawal\”, that technological challenges for fraudsters capturing PIN numbers in the case of Mobile Money account holders are much greater than with the ATM case. The ATM is a public machine where anyone can \”legitimately\” access the physical installation. The mobile phone is a personal device. A technological pin capturing scheme by any fraudster against mobile money systems can potentially be reduced to spying on usage of individual mobile phone key pad. This seems much more difficult than setting up spy cameras or overlaid key pads at the ATM accessed by multiple account holders. The question is if the mobile operators can assure people that the communication channel between the mobile phone and the mobile money authentication service is encrypted, which would reduce options for the fraudster sniffing the line for peoples mobile money PIN numbers across the mobile networks.

The mobile money equivalent of cloning the account holder information seemed complicated for the fraudster, until I thought about Sim Cloning. Although there are arguments suggesting that sim cloning is practically impossible, theoretically a fraudster could clone a SIM card if they had enough reason. They might as well steal the original sim card / phone from the account holder if SIM cloning became imposible. Of course the parallel to stealing the SIM card in the ATM fraud case is that of stealing the card from the card holder which is not an area of comparison in this article.

Critics of mobile money will say that mobile money agents are scarce geographically and may not be accessible for withdrawals at night. The same applies for ATM infrastructure, and mobile money fairs better on the same yardsticks in rural areas. More importantly, withdrawal of mobile money from ATMs is possible without using the all-vulnerable ATM cards. Instructions for withdrawing Mpesa and Airtel Money from PesaPoint ATMs is evidence to that. Mobile money\’s early challenges of float for deposits and agent distribution are also surmountable.

The challenge on volumes of amount acceptable within mobile money is also real. One can pay bills of $2,000 using a credit card in the UK and thats not possible in with Mobile money in Kenya. When reduced to the context of money withdrawals, Mobile money and ATM systems seem comparable since ATM systems often imply daily or weekly withdrawal limits for security.

Putting your mouth where you money is …

With possible security loopholes in Magnetic stripe systems, EMV cards and mobile money, the discussion of which one to build on and enhance is obvious – to me. Kenyan\’s financial institutions, mobile network operators and independent innovators should invest resources in making their mobile money implementations more secure –  so secure that for security considerations, they stand out ahead of solutions fronted by foreign corporation such as Visa and Mastercard.

There is already a national competitive advantage built around mobile money among Kenyan institutions. From mobile money transfers to mobile banking to mobile money withdrawal Kenya is at the forefront in showing the world how to grow the platform. The solution to the ATM fraud issue should therefore not be obviously the expensive replacement of banks\’ the magnetic stripe card infrastructure with a smart card based EMV infrastructure. Part or most of the solution is for banks and other players to better embrace Kenya\’s mobile money revolution.

Conclusion: Job Creation

By the sheer fact that mobile money systems create jobs at the agency level that upgraded (EMV based) ATM machines will not create, it can be argued that putting our mouth where our money is by developing mobile money systems more is better than mass importing new ATM machines, Point of sale terminals and other related infrastructure items

Gearing up for Mobile Web East Africa 2012

East Africa region continues to strengthen its profile as a mobile innovation hub. As mobile developers, entrepreneurs and stakeholders prepare for Pivot East, the regions mobile apps pitching conference in June, a couple of industry related events are happening as well. These events are helping to showcase East Africa as a mobile innovation destination.
   
This week on 22nd and 23rd February, Nairobi gets to host one of East Africa’s conferences on the mobile web ecosystem. The conference was first held in Nairobi on 3rd and 4th February 2010 and comes back to the City two years later. Much has changed in the last two years and the conference is an opportunity for many to catch up with the state of affairs since mobile phone penetration and  mobile data connectivity began to increase exponentially in the region.  The conference will be at the Southern Sun Mayfair and Kenya ICT board are its official hosts.

*iHub_ and m:lab East Africa are officially supporting the event. A 30% discount is granted for iHub members attending the conference for which registration can be made online here. The event organizers also are offering 50% subsidies on delegate fees to developers and start up companies under 2 years old and less than 10 employees. The event promises to be interactive and full of insights for developers, entrepreneurs and professionals playing in the mobile web sector. With a compelling agenda, the list of speakers and the discussion panelists, delegates are likely to appreciate better the state of affairs in the region’s mobile web ecosystem.

The conference starts with Kenya’s ICT Board CEO Paul Kukubo Reviewing the evolution of the Kenyan sector from 2010 to 2012. The CEO is expected to highlight successess and challenges around, Local content, app monetisation, startup/SME financing,  and innovation hubs. Kenya’s Permanent Sectretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication is expected on the same day to speak about the government dedication and support to the ICT sector. The conference is also expected to here from Research In Motion’s Technical Partnership Manager for Sub Saharan Africa – Michael Weitzel.

Mark Kaigwa, a partner at Afr-innovator, an African technology news portal will also be there to examine the “Silicon Savanah” tag and whether it carries much substance beyond the increased marketing efforts by the Government. Other presentation and discussion themes for the first day include mobile marketing and the opportunity for app monetization and growth of brands. Frank Maina of Sponge East Africa and inMobi’s Moses Kemibaro will be speakers in this session. Entertainment and media consumption on mobile devices will be another area of discussion with Johan Nel, Chief Executive Officer & Founder, Umuntu Media speaking. Emma Kaye, Chief Executive Officer of Bozza will talk about the prospects of growth in mobile film making.

The second day commences with Strathmore University’s Joseph Sevilla exploring the trend of tech focused youth that might drive the next generation of mobile content, services and companies. Judith Owigar of AkiraChix will also speak on efforts to enhance uptake of tech-entrepreneurship by women. John Carroll, Director of Technology at ForgetMeNot Software will speak on what it takes to to cultivate a startup culture. Other presentation and discussion themes lined up for the second day include using mobile as a tool for empowerment and social good.

The second and final day will culminate in an app developer competition where 5 entrants will battle it out for $1500 worth of InMobi ad network spend and blackberry handsets among other prizes and benefits. The competitors will have five minutes to pitch.

The conference will end with an open mic session where any member of the delegation can take the podium present and discuss whatever they like in 5 minutes. Each open-mic presentation will be followed by 5 minutes of questions and answers with the audience.

A full programme for the two day conference can be viewed in the conference’s website (www.mobileeastafrica.com).

Nairobi\’s Tech Scene – Personal Highlights for Quarter 1 of 2011

My last article in this blog was posted in December 2010. That makes almost 5 months since I made a serious post.  It was by no means intentionally staying away from writing for this long. It was rather more of  \’the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak\’. To kick start blogging again I shall lazily try to recap the noteworthy developments I have observed in my small technology world during the first three months of 2011.


Mobile Monday with Pesapal – January 17
That was an inspiring moment especially listening to Agosta Liko of PesaPal. It was impressive to see a local technology startup begin to penetrate the corporate market place – with schools and banks. I still have not heard much from them regarding one of my wish list items though. They should think more through the possibilities for Kenyans paying monthly rent using PesaPal – their great payment information service. Liko\’s powerpoint presentation can be downloaded here.


OpenMRS meetup  – January 24
Despite the rainy morning, we had a great meetup with OpenMRS friends at the iHub that was ably organized by my friend @JWesonga. On the same day there was an opportunity to engage students at the university of Nairobi\’s School of Computing and Informatics which I had helped organise. It was lovely then to listen in to @ and @ as they sensitized the local computer science students who were mostly in second year on software development for good. 

Fireside Chat with Ken Oyolla – January 27th
I had this great opportunity to listen to Ken Oyola – Nokia\’s General Manager for East and Southern Africa during the iHub\’s monthly Fire Side chat. I had first met Oyolla when I was a form one in Mangu high school – he had \’cleared\’ from the great institution and was coming back as a mentor a year after. During the FireSide chat, it struck me how people do not change even after a decade or more of exposure to the world out there. Ken was still the same candidly inspiring strong personality. Am sure he will achieve another \’first one\’, beyond being the first African to hold such a high ranking position in Nokia.

Mid-Feb Transitional Period
Mid February was a transitional period for me as I left my fairly comfortable, no-real-pressure state corporation Job. It was time to take up a more challenging role with m:lab EAST AFRICA. The new role is really exciting and much worth the career shift as it fits magically into my ICT4D leadership aspirations. More so, it seems like the best opportunity to amplify my modest contribution to East Africa\’s knowledge economy.

Mobile Monday with Microsoft Guys – 21st February
In all honesty I do not have a history of being a fan of Microsoft\’s products. Having to say something about m:lab at the event, attending this Mobile Monday was mostly a duty call. I was impressed to see how Microsoft has been working hard to contribute towards positive social transformation across the world. They had a video of previous Imagine Cup winners from somewhere in Asia which was impressive. It was also my first event to hear about Craft Silicon\’s ELMA platform for rapid mobile application development of mobile banking solutions. The thought of having a mobile applications generator, for development without much coding sounded interesting – only I thought it will remove control and gratification from the local application developer.

It is a shame I missed February\’s Fire Side Chat with Larry Wall  (on 24th February). Larry Wall is the creator of the Pearl Programming Language for readers who would care to know.

iHub one year anniversary – 11th March
In the dying hours of the year 2010, I was reflecting and thinking to myself that inception of the iHub had been the greatest thing that had happened to Kenya\’s tech scene that year. I really wanted to blog my thoughts then but I realized I needed to avoid looking to oversell my hurriedly done late application for green membership. The thought passed by and in March I was happy to participate in iHub\’s first anniversary. Meeting the bigger iHub community was awesome although I had a rude culture shock of members murmuring away as ICT board\’s Paul Kukubo gave his speech. With me coming from a government background – it felt awkward. A parastatal CEO like Paul was meant to be revered and accorded maximum attention in public service circles – the murmurs felt radically different. Culture shock and assimilation aside, I look forward to a ground breaking year 2011 for the iHub community in terms of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Mobile Monday with Moses Kemibaro of Dealfish – 21st March
This event was a must attend for me – not because of any duty call but because @MosesKemibaro is one of the most respectable bloggers in Nairobi\’s tech scene for me. I needed to find out what he had been up to after rumor had it that he was no longer actively involved with his DotSavvy company.  Moses is Regional Manager for Dealfish. His presentation helped to demistify Dealfish – currently a constant fixture in Nairobis outdoor bill boards and online google ad-words for the Kenya context. With tweets like this :- \”RT @ Dealfish are not sure how to monetize their service yet – they are not worried about this either \”, the message was loud and clear that Moses\’ new venture had deep pockets behind it. Moses fell short of being forthright on the issue of when Dealfish would start making money. His update later that Dealfish would turn on its money making machine at its own chosen time was quite telling on how serious the South African firm was about the Kenyan online market place.

During this Mobile monday it was also enlightening to know of m-order, an upcoming service from Hilda Moraa and her troop who were students at the Strathmore university. Nairobi\’s chapter of Mobile Monday has some good pictures of the event in their website here

Fireside Chat with John Waibochi of Virtual City 24th March
The iHub did it again with its March fireside chat. Then it was John Waibochi, the CEO of Virtual City on the raised floor. Virtual City is the Kenyan company that won 2010\’s Nokia innovation challenge with $1 million prize money. Mr. Waibochi\’s story was intriguing and inspiring as well. With the entrepreneurial tips of \’riding the wave\’  and exiting just before the wave\’s peak, Waibochi did well to motivate budding tech-entrepreneurs. His talk was much of a consolation also for me – to know that my corporate, MBAish background had a place in tech-entrepreneurship. It got me dusting down my  ERP, ISO 9000 and balanced scored card salesmanship cap with some rather unrealistic ambitions for my new career situation. Waibochi also offered tips on important global trends such as android and impact investment which he thought were more important than looking up to real life mentors.

Anticipation for Second Quarter of 2011
There were many developments and events I missed on in the first quarter of 2011. Indeed Nairobi has a thriving tech scene that no one person can keep track of all happenings. Watching the iHub\’s event calendar helps a bit though. In the months of April, May and June 2011, there are some important events I look forward to. One of them is iHub\’s Fireside chat for April which will have Mr. Joe Mucheru of Google Africa on the raised floor on 21st April. I also have much anticipation for this year\’s Pivot25 event that will see 25 mobile applications being showcased at Nairobi\’s Ole Sereni Hotel in June 2011. 

Local content grants: Government information portal awards to firms first

This week there was much buzz about the Kenya 2009 census results, the on-going contest among our mobile networks, and other developments in the Kenyan online content space. What may have passed some of us in the midst of the noise is the announcement of one category of winners for the first round of Local Content and Software Applications Grant. As earlier mentioned on this blog, the initial processes of the grant had a number of useful insights if the ICT Board\’s post-application survey was to go by.

Applicants for the grant in the government information portal / firms category were announced on 31st August 2010. In this category, seven proposals were chosen from a list of 166 proposals by firms according to the ICT Board\’s press statement. The seven proposals were

  1. Octopus Solutions Limited – HIV and AIDS in the workplace e-Learing Course – To assist implementation of the HIV and AIDS work place policy among civil servants
  2. Infotrack Strategic Solutions Ltd – Teacher\’s Portal – Linking Kenyan teachers with their employer (The Teachers Service Commission)
  3.  iBid Labs – Kenya Online Museum  – Multimedia documentation of Kenya\’s rich history
  4. Foundation Support Services (FSS) Ltd – IVR Tax Filing Solution – A multilingual platform for Kenyans to file tax returns based on Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology
  5. BTI Millman Company Ltd – eMazingira Software Application – Crowd sourcing application for documenting and collecting information on environmental degradation and abuse using the Ushahidi platform
  6. RiverCross Technologies Ltd – EDUWEB– To create a comprehensive list and interactive map of all education institutions in Kenya
  7. JBA Advertising Co Ltd  – Lost and Found Project  To assist Kenyans to find their lost official documents such as national ID cards 

Needless to say, successful implementation of the above proposals alone is bound to make a huge impact  to Kenyans, solving some of their most basic problems.  The proposed projects also have potential for fostering a productive online culture and the growth of our knowledge economy.

It is noteworthy that the ICT board did not announce winners for the other grant categories a per the schedule earlier promised. The missed target is definitely a disappointment for many stakeholders watching – in Kenya any unexpected / unexplained delays in such a process can result in all sorts of conspiracy theories. Nevertheless the board was kind enough to make public more finer details about the remaining categories and the number of applicants as follows :-

  • Category A: Individuals – Private Sector Digital Content and Software Applications Grants – 133 applicants
  • Category B: Firms – Private Sector Digital Content and Software Applications Grants – 256 applicants
  • Category C: Individuals – Government Information Portal – 112 applicants

The board went further to promise announcement of the successful grantees for remaining categories on 28th September 2010. With the earlier missed targets for announcement of  evaluation results, it remains doubtful that the new target can be achieved. The doubt remains considering that the first category results announced so far cover barely a quarter of the entire round\’s applications.

Videos related to the ICT board\’s announcement at the Serena Hotel can be found here

Insights from the Local Content (Tandaa) Grant Application Process

Today morning the Kenya ICT Board through its Tandaa Kenya newsletter shared the results of a survey it administered on its grants application process. The survey was administered to applicants of the Local digital Content Grant a day after the proposal application deadline expired. Some highlights of the results were shared through the newsletter and also mentioned in Moses Kemibaro\’s blog including the following :-

  • Barely 15% of lead contacts for applicants were female < Affirmative action needed? 
  • 77.9% of those who participated were satisfied with the grant application process (more than half of these were very satisfied) < Confirmation of sentiments in my earlier post
  • 20% of those who participated had attended a Tandaa Symposium  < More effort might be required to interest more professionals and entrepreneurs in the Kenya ICT Board activities
  • 369 (55%) of the 667 completed applications were made on the last day. < Explanation attempted in my earlier post

Since data analysis is a daily routine for me, I shall attempt a closer look at other statistics from the survey for some more insights. Hopefully this helps for those of us with some curious minds


1) The main channels through which applicants learnt about the grant were the newspaper advertisement (40.3%) and the ICT board website (24.7%).  


The mainstream print media seems to remain the most effective way to mobilize participation of the local Tech. fraternity. The apparent popularity of the ICT board\’s website is welcome as the board grows its reliability and relevance to the Kenyan knowledge economy. The rather dismal performance of the morning shows in this aspect (Nation TV – 4.3% and Citizen TV – 2.1%)  appears to indicate the low effectiveness of TV shows aired during \’odd\’ morning hours.

2) Only 677 (31%) of the attempted 2,154 applications were completed. Further 139 (a meager 9%) of the those  who did not complete the application process participated in the evaluation survey.  Most of the 139 survey participants stated that they were unable to complete their applications because they did not have supporting documents (43.2%) or they simply run out of time (42.0%) 

    It appears that time constraints were a significant factor contributing to the the low rate of completed applications. It might have been interesting to see if those who were unable to complete their applications for lack of supporting documents would have gone ahead to complete their applications – given more time to \’secure\’ the documents. This is also not to say that our last minute culture mentioned in my earlier post would not defeat the purpose us such a deadline extension.

      3) Of the 456 participating respondents, 413(90.5%) welcomed the offer by the ICT board to share their proposal information with venture capitalists and other funding agencies. However when further asked to state which specific aspects of their proposals they were free to share, a much lesser portion of  34.4% was willing to have their bugdets shared.  Further, slightly less than a third 33.2% of the respondents were free to have their proposed work plans shared. Participants were otherwise generally free to have their proposal title – 70.2%, contact information – 85.7% and overall goals and objectives  – 70.7% shared.

        This is indicative of changing attitudes among Kenyan \’TechPreneurs\’. There appears to be changing perceptions to on the idea of innovation and intellectual property rights. indeed it appears the Kenyan ICT fraternity is  moving away from a tendency to sit on their unshared, unimplemented ideas for lack of resources to implement them while fearing that \’someone will steal their idea\’. The results also appear to indicate that would be Kenyan innovators are generally trusting of the ICT board. 

        The fact that few respondents were willing to have their work plans shared is indicative of how confident the applicants were with the finer detail\’s on their proposals. The applicants might have thought they had more room for improvement to their budgets and work plans hence the hesitation to allow sharing with potential financiers before further tweaking and customization. It is also likely that the applicants simply wished to more easily retain their options for increasing their scope of activities and budgets beyond the Tandaa grant limitations.

        Local Content Grants – Signs of a good start by the ICT Board

        Many Kenyan techies did not have a very normal weekend of 17th to 18th July 2010. For the simple reason that the deadline for submitting applications for the \’tandaa\’ grants was the Monday following (19th July). They had to do last minute write ups and touch ups on their local content grant proposals. Of course there had been a whole month or so to prepare and submit the proposals comfortably. Needless to say our last minute action culture did not excuse even some of the most organized amongt us. According to the ICT board,  of 1,800 applicants, 667 successfully completed the application process.  Indeed it is likely that many of the 1100 or so proposals that were not completed were merely time barred.


        Aside from our \’nice\’ culture, it may not be too early to give the Kenya ICT board a pat on the back for some noticeable milestones they have achieved with the first round of the local digital content grant financed by one of Kenya\’s many World Bank loans. Several characteristics of the ICT board process pleasantly distinguishes it from the other local grant management programs.


        1. Online Proposal Application
        Many government grant programs (eg. in HIV&AIDS grants) involve a tedious process of preparing and submitting physical documents. More often than not 3 or 5 copies of the same document are required. The ICT board\’s application process has done well in demonstrating that this does not have to be the case. The \’tandaa\’ application was through a fairly straight forward online form. The form questions were designed to encourage applicants to be straight and to the point in responding to questions using word count limits. The board went further to present a sample grant application and guidelines which were rather useful. A dump of the complete application information that was provided by the system including an application code and was rather useful. 

        Many people would easily say, and stereotypically so, that such an online application process is only possible where the targeted applicants are IT and internet savvy. My suggestion is that such stereotypes will end in the near future as more and more Kenyans get assimilated into the web culture. It is worth noting that the very reasoning behind the local content grant is to recruit more Kenyans into an online knowledge society by generating more online content and applications they can relate to.

        2. FAQs and Answers
        I was impressed by the thought of not only holding pre-application regional workshops in Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret and Nairobi to educate Kenyans on the grant but going ahead to post the questions frequently asked about the grant on the ICT board website. It would look like a very basic thing to do to many people but it did make a difference especially for those who could not attend the regional workshops – more so for those who needed some last minute clarifications.

        3. Application closure feedback and survey
        One more impressive thing was that the board provided feedback to proposal applicants a day following the deadline. The feedback included a mention of how many proposals had been attempted (1800) and how many were successfully concluded (667). The feedback email provided a further reminder that the proposals would be reviewed and results communicated in three weeks. Even more impressive was the  fact that  along with the email feedback, the board administered a 9 question survey on the application process experience to the applicants. One of the survey questions was whether the applicants wished to have their proposals availed to venture capital firms and other funding agencies. In view of the observation that only about 40 of the 667 proposals would be funded in the first grant cycle, the ICT board came out as proactive with the intention of facilitating financing beyond the grant. 


        Future expectations
        Some friends from outside our small economy might wonder why I am so impressed by the above little successes. It might help them to note that such little efficiencies do not happen every day in our government systems and they are indeed noteworthy. On a continued note of pessimism, we should look forward to the ICT board achieving more successes in this first cycle such as
        1. Stick to the deadline for completion of proposal evaluation and formal communication on results (15th August) while providing a sense of objectivity and fairness  in the overall grant award.
        2. Publish analysis of the 9 question application closure survey for more insights on the general perceptions, feelings and experiences of the applications – (might provide useful insights to future applicants)
        3. Publish the list of successful and unsuccessful grants promptly after proposal evaluation – at least on the board\’s website
        4. Good luck in monitoring project execution by  successful applicants for enhanced accountability and impact to the local digital content industry.
        On a more trivial but perhaps important note, it might help for more specific timelines to be communicated for application deadlines in future. Stating that the application deadline was 19th July 2010 does not give enough guidance as to whether applications should have been submitted before 00.00hrs 19th, 00.00hrs 20th, or close of business 19th July – typically 17.00hrs. 


        Lets look forward to more \’little\’ successes from the ICT board – hoping other grant making institutions will follow the good examples.

        Save Africa from monopolistic content vendors

        The arrival in 2009 of international submarine fibre optic data links to East Africa is anticipated to catalyse a digital revolution in the region. For a long time access to any international digital content has been expensively dependent on satellite solution providers. With the drastic fall of internet bandwith costs already implemented by some of the terrestrial digital infrastructure providers like KDN, Kenyans and East Africans in general are in for completely overhauled digital content industry.

        So significant was the anticipated change in content delivery that the Kenya ICT Board and individuals like Dr. Bitange Ndemo were aggressively evangelizing Kenyan youth and entrepreneurs to indulge en masse in the digital content generation industry.  The noble campaign to make Kenyans bridge their international content exchange deficit may also have had a side effect of forgetting to address some of the long standing content importation challenges.  A majority of Kenyans continue to pay dearly for their expensive content importation habits such as fanatically following the English Premier League (EPL).  

        English Premier League matches appear to be only available through the traditional satellite TV channel currently a monopoly of the South African Multichoice DSTV.  So valuable is the football and sports to Kenyans that many of us pay USD 73 per month to pay for the appropriate DSTV package. The monthly rate is interestingly in dollars or at a Multichoice.za prescribed Ksh/dollar rate of Ksh 78.  For now I need not go into the tribulations that Kenyans have to persevere, inflicted by DSTV’s monopolistic tendencies – that’s for another day.  Needless to say, a good number of Kenyans live on less than USD 30 a month.

        I presume subscriptions to international digital content delivered through satellite are exorbitantly priced, inevitably because of the cost of maintaining the expensive satellite links. I shall also presume that the same digital content services can be delivered via our new international optic fibre gateways. I should finally be allowed to assume that it is time for Kenyans to seek delivery of ‘essential’ international content such as live English premier league games through the new fibre optic gateways. The issue of limits in bandwidth capacity and redundancy should not be an issue any more, having SEACOM and TEAMS already live in 2009 and EASSY becoming live in mid 2010.

        I shall begin my appeals for 2010 by urging Kenyans to actively participate in leveraging our own football content (away from the current troubled state).  I am also appealing to the ICT ministry to proactively pursue and support the use of the expensively acquired international optic fibre links to deliver the all important EPL content to Kenyans. Lastly I am appealing to the EPL itself to desist from perpetuating tendencies of monopolistic multinationals; for instance selling 100% broadcast rights to a singular entity.

        semeni – Kenya’s nifty group SMS service repackaged

        Aside from the unending debate of the M-PESA success in Kenya, it is interesting to note that there are other SMS based services that have been maturing into being equally innovative and relevant to the peculiar people of Kenya. I have been thinking through semeni; the group SMS service developed by  mobile planet and perhaps in conjunction with \’our Safaricom\’. My chama (investment group) has used the service for at least two years now and I think it is a very convenient and practical service. Readers comments on my previous post on M-PESA ownership pointed at convenience to the populace being the significant factor for M-PESA\’s success. I should say then that if convenience were the only factor for the phenomenal success, then semeni (or 184 as known within my chama) should be equally successful in a few more months or years from now.
        The service allows users to broadcast an SMS text to multiple selected friends, family members, co-workers and so on within the Safaricom network for only 10/- per broadcast. The same should be possible as standard features of some mobile phone handsets which an individual can set up on their own phone. Semeni takes the otherwise basic feature further by making it platform (handset) indipendent to begin with – embracing the now hype cloud computing concept. The service then goes ahead to offer individuals a relatively simple and common interface to create, modify and delete groups. Administrative features include inviting new members and \’transferring leadership\’. For individual members, features include creating their nick names specific to each group they belong to, going offline – to stop receiving group messages temporarily, and voluntarily leaving a group.  The service goes ahead to act as an archive of messages sent through the group – a cool feature for those of us who are perpetually pruning the inbox of our low capacity handsets.
        What makes this service a little more ready for the masses as 2009 comes to a close is the added combination of both an SMS and a web based user interface. The group and individual membership management features are accessible through either the SMS or the Web based mode. The repackaged service also scales up to allow individual membership of more than one group by adding a extra digit after the 184 code. The new groups are coded 184X  (where X is 1-9,0) to uniquely identify a maximum of 10 groups that an individual can theoritically belong to. As such I could have the number 1841 assigned to my estate \’jirani mwema\’ group, 1842 to my Bible study group, 1843 to my chama, 1844 to my sibblings and so on.
        Perhaps it is not the basic feature of broadcasting SMS texts to selected groups of friends and family members at reduced costs that makes semeni a ground breaking service for Kenyans. It is rather the potential that such a service carries of competing at the same level as facebook, twitter and other social network services heavily used in Kenya. As a social media platform, semeni has this unique advantage of starting from the trusted, established  and known social networks inherent in the existing social patterns of Kenyans. It will definitely not surprise many to have semeni offer more social media-like services on its web based interface. The service\’ apparent approach of offerring a simple and deliberately reduced feature set might be a plus if the phenomenal growth of twitter with its reduced feature set is to go by.
        On the downside the service currently appears to be one more item in Safaricom\’s arsenal to indefinitely lock its 14 million plus subscribers within its arguably expensive network. The service also has yet to allow its users to send messages for free or at normal network rates from its web-based platform. Of greater concern is that the service seems not to be beneffitting much from Safaricom\’s phenomenal marketting bugdet as yet.
        The semeni support center would be a good place to start for those who want to know more about how the service works.

        So how do I know an IT practitioner in Kenya

        The other day Dr. Bitange Ndemo – who I really respect announced that ICDL training will be used as some kind of benchmark for determining whether one is computer literate. That seems to me a very useful move for the ICT industry. It definitely very useful for the Kenya chapter of ICDL. Skeptics will say Dr. Ndemo was \’enticed\’ to make the public pronouncement. Let us now watch to see how the growing computer training industry responds to the implied endorsement – no more questionable computer training certificates? Whatever the case, the trend should make life easier for those IT practitioners in the area of IT service support. It should be easier to tell a fellow employee to read their ICDL notes when they ask for support to prepare some powerpoint presentation.

        The next thing Dr. Ndemo should scout for is the benchmark for one to be safely called an IT expert. Some of the ladies and gentlement we call IT practitioners have the perhaps outdated IMIS diploma, ACE etc. Others have MCSE, MCP, CCNA, Oracle Administrators which may not have been renewed since the first vendor curiculum was published. Then there is the educated lot who undertook went through a formal degree such as BSC Computer Science, BBIT, BSC in IT, BSC in Software Engineering and others. Others did BSC in electronic engineering, BSC in Maths and seem to have a claim to the title \’IT expert\’.

        It seems difficult to establish who really is the expert in Kenya. Perhaps they all are. Perhaps Dr. Ndemo should make a pronouncement. Perhaps they should all subscribe to a body that would vet them by some standards. The question of what the Computer Society of Kenya (CSK) means to this debate seems difficult – especially when my colleague says CSK is only a one man show.

        This IT profession surely feels like an interesting one. Consider the question of which of the above qualifications earns the right to scale up the corporate ICT ladder. Lastly, should the head of the IT function be the IT manager, ICT managemer, IS manager, Data Manager or should they carry the more glamorous Chief Information Officer title?  Now we need an IT consultant to determine the meaning of these titles in our esteemed organisations.

        CYBER-LAWYERS REQUIRED FOR KENYA\’S KNOWLEDGE ECONOMY

        This week I have had several chats with some of my learned friends about the Communication (Amendment) Act 2008. I am convinced that there are still major gaps or areas of improvement if we are to have a conducive legal environment for the growth of a knowledge economy. Perhaps the biggest gap is the basic one of awareness among law enforcers, advocates, judges, prosecutors and the public in general.

        Many of my learned friends are either themselves ignorant of the existence of the law or are simply skeptical that it is not a practical law. Various sections of the law seem simply Utopian to the some of the lawyers. Some lawyers merely dismiss it as a law doomed to automatically contradict other existing laws. With the lawyers themselves skeptical about our cyber-laws the public confidence on economic activity through the web and other electronic platforms is seriously undermined.

        The communication amendment act having already been passed and signed, there are at least two more bills outstanding with the ministry of ICT that will further enhance our knowledge economy – The Freedom Of Information (FOI) bill and the Data Protection Bill. There is need for greater professional participation in the development of these bills especially among legal fraternity and the IT industry. It might also help a great deal for the proposed bills to be presented for discussion in our universities\’ legal, business, media and information technology schools. Apart from enriching the contents of the bills, such presentations will double up to achieve the much needed publicity and advocacy among the youth who are ultimately driving the knowledge economy.

        In general, there seems to be a dire need to interest many more lawyers on ICT and knowledge management disciplines. Perhaps this needs to be addressed by enhancing the our university law offerings or through continuing education for the already learned friends. Some of our universities may already be sensing this need, which may have necessitated Anthony Okulo\’s presentation – Development of a legal framework for e-commerce in Kenya during the Strathmore University\’s 9th ICT seminar (September 2008)