Thursday, April 29, 2010
A section of government fat cats gathered at the Norfolk yesterday on invitation by the World Bank and Treasury, ostensibly to showcase strides they have made in the past year in reforming the way business is done in Kenya.
As you can imagine, most of it dwelt on use of information and communication technologies to streamline government operations. Bureaucracy in the people's government is usually the first and most frustrating barrier to doing business.
The taxman was there as well as Kenya Ports Authority. Newly-crowned champion of ministries, the AG's office was there to showcase their progress in computerizing company registration. Lands and the Nairobi City Council made up the remaining numbers.
KRA had some interesting proposals. For starters they want big companies to start filing their corporate taxes online. Uptake has been slow but training is ongoing to show firms how to pay Ceasar's dues via internet. The KRA officer did not say if they have also automated the VAT refund claim process.
For mom and pop-type businesses known by the cliche SMEs, KRA wants them to pay their taxes by M-PESA/ZAP. SMEs have to pay a turnover tax at 3 per cent of their gross revenues.
Another is the single billing system for clients who pay multiple taxes. Traditionally, companies have to physically visit different windows sometimes on different floors to file their taxes. With a new single billing system, a taxpayer can file at one point and get their balance thus saving time.
Still on automation, STate Law Office has digitized company records so the process of doing a company search will no longer require assistance from the broker-types who normally hover around Sheria House.
KPA on the other hand talked of what it calls the National Single Window System to allow importers to clear their goods at one place. Typically, you have to invest in a motorbike to run your documents from KPA to Kenya Bureau of Standards to KEPHIS, Port Health etc etc. Cabinet approval will see the software to integrate all these bodies into one system.
Lands was in for a hiding. After the lands officer presented a paper showing that Ardhi House was now digitizing records to make it easier for filing of applications, a lawyer present protested loudly.
"Practically nothing has changed," charged the lawyer. To renew a lease on land, he said, one needed to start three years before the actual expiry otherwise the process takes so long that you risk finding yourself a squatter on your own land.
Apparently, corruption is so rife that when you ask for your application, you are always told that the file is on the minister's desk.
Also coming in for berating was the City Council. Again it was noted that once a building permit is given, planning officers rarely follow up to inspect the works progress and when complaints about a builder are raised with City Hall, the complainant is asked to bring the name of the culprit.
City Hall was asked to style up and reduce the approval process time from 30 days to about 3 days.
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
It is said that birds of a feather flock together. It should be added that they tend to sing the same song. The song that Kenyan telecom operators have been singing to internet customers is that despite the arrival of two sub-marine cables at the Port of Mombasa, internet costs will not come down.
The maddening line they have been feeding us is that: "We are giving you more capacity for the same cost!"
Laurent Giraud is the man who runs Telkom Kenya's carrier business. This means he sells capacity to other carriers: telecom operators and internet service providers. TKL has a stake in both TEAMS cable and EASSy. It also runs to national terrestrial fiber optic networks. It's own and the state-owned National Optic Fiber Backbone (NOFBI).
It is his day job to engage with operators eager to negotiate the lowest rates on his network.
I asked him whether telecom operators who were buying capacity before at US$2000 per MB would still continue to buy at that price if he offered to double the capacity he gives them. He said absolutely not.
Operators have insisted on an absolute lowering of rates and now buy capacity on average at US$400 per MB. By MB I mean the size of the pipe that carries the data as opposed to Mb/s which denotes the speed of transfer of data.
You see if you have a water pipe, you can either talk of its diameter or you can talk about the rate at which water flows in the pipe.
The bigger the pipe the more the water that can pass. Fiber is seen as a much bigger pipe than copper cable because no matter what speed you pass data through a small pipe, there is a limit.
Anyway, so telecom operators are not willing to be fed the same line they've been feeding customers. They have insisted on lower rates.
So why is it that when it comes to onward selling of that same capacity, they insist on maintaining their old prices ostensibly because they are giving you double the capacity?
Clearly, prices are about 25 per cent of what they were before. It is time that the Ministry of Information or the Ministry of Trade stepped in to reign in these rogue operators. Clearly, they are engaged in fleecing clients and they are doing so because there exists an asymmetric information structure in the Industry.
The consumer is not aware of the wholesale prices that is why they are getting jacked by these crooks.
CCK should step in and force the publication of applicable prices at every juncture.
The ministry should also call for the creation of a fiber operator to run the national backbone and distribute capacity at proper prices so as to undercut these pirates of the superhighway.
It should be able to sell capacity to anyone who wants it including small ISPs that can then give us bandwidth at good prices.
Let this skullduggery stop fortwith!
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Yesterday, Scribes were summoned to Cisco's seventh floor office suites at Landmark Plaze opposite The Nairobi Hospital to witness Cisco Tele Presence technology.
"It's not video-conferencing," Shahab, the Cisco GM here said. "It's TelePresence!" Now, the facilities that Cisco has at their place are of course top of the range. In a custom made room with three giant plasma screens with three cameras all branded Cisco we were sat to hook up with peeps from Sao Paulo, London and Jo'Burg.
The screens, Cisco guys pointed out to us, were High Definition, the audio was spatial. So we clicked start program on a touch screen PABX like phone in front of us and voila! we were connected to three time zones.
The audio I must say was excellent with no delay and the images were really good quality. The question is to what effect?
A good article written last week pointed out how companies fail by misreading their competition. For example, the competition for airlines is not other airlines, the piece sagaciously noted, but videoconferencing that cuts out the need to travel.
For Cisco, this ability to communicate seamlessly say for a bank with multiple branches without the need to travel will be a big selling point. But this in no way makes it a world beater because already other players are testing video conferencing solutions that are getting better and better.
What struck me was the next phase of this thing. Currently, Cisco TP works on intranets that is within one company's network. You can't for example connect on Cisco TP and connect to another company out there.
But it is on the way. The company is coming up with what it calls Cisco TP Exchange Point which will allow companies with TP technology to communicate.
With an intercompany TP exchange, Cisco could be well on its way to being a sort of carrier for high-definition video and audio conferencing. For if this was to take off it could be a way of companies to do business without the hassle of travel or too many back and forth emails.
Companies like Cisco for example, could carry out corporate training for top CIO/CTOs at major firms from their regional HQs if they all have TP deployed.
Locally, it will take time for this technology to be deployed as it is quite expensive ranging from US$100,000 - US$500,000 (Sh7-35m). Further, it still needs heavy bandwidth and as the Cisco guys noted, TP over 3G would be a stretch. 4G maybe.
However, government is a good candidate to pilot this technology both for its own use and for leasing to others to use.
DEpartment of Defence could also deploy this to its regional commands and allow top brass to communicate with commanders.
Universities can also establish this if they have the money for distance learning for example collabos with other universities around the world or for their satellite campuses when faculty is stretched.
For smaller scale businesses, it will take entrepreneurs such as cyber-cafes, network operators or even hotels to deploy this technology and then charge for its use. Much in the same way, Hotels offer conference facilities or even boardrooms for meetings, they can offer this service for say a small NGO wishing to have face to face like meetings with their head offices.
Nairobitech cannot part without mentioning the issue of mobility. This would seem to be a far cry for now but it would seem to be the next natural development. However, it will require far higher capacities.
Monday, April 19, 2010
One of the agonies of programming whether in college computer labs late into the night or working on software development at work, is debugging. Programming is mathematical and methodical as any code-writer will tell you. But even semantics can drive you nuts. Take C programming for example. One of the commonest errors you'll inevitably face working with this iconic language is pointers where particularly in iterations, referencing goes beyond the bound of the array so that on the next iteration it returns an error and it can drive you nuts before you figure it out. But so can a missing semi-colon. All C commands are supposed to end with a semi-colon but it is quite common to forget it and write lines and lines of codes but when the program is compiled it returns errors.
These are some of the basic but very frustrating aspects of writing code but they get more complex particularly when you lose touch with what the library files that you include in your program or even super classes from which you inherit provided for or even variables change in one function affecting the operations of another separate but related function and so on and so forth.
So when somebody asks you to examine a program for errors as a career, those of us who turned away from writing code would shudder. But apparently, this is a lucrative career and more so now that multinationals are outsourcing software testing to places like India.
The Kenya Software Quality Testing Board (KSQTB) is a nascent group that has just been constituted and it is seeking to train Kenyan developers to become certified software testers.
This area, they reckon has jobs. Jobs that are currently being handled in India. By their reckoning if we have enough internationally certified testers, we could begin to bid for big contracts and could eventually see this area surpass business process outsourcing.
The board will work in a not-for-profit basis with membership free to all those interested but there will be charges for exams and training.
Because it will constitute software developers, nerds essentially, who care little for petty politics, luminaries like Agosta Liko of PesaPal see it taking off.
A number of guys attended a training last week at Jacaranda Hotel in Westlands and drew from such entities as KQ, Kenya Ports Authority, Virtual City, Kenya Revenue Authority etc.
Nairobitech will keep an eye on the nascent group to see how it navigates the terrain.