Nairobi’s Urban Digital Divide, or, NUDD for short.
If your like me, and live and work in the largely nicer parts of Nairobi, its very easy to assume that your digital world is the same, or similar, to others in the city.
If your like me, chances are you hardly ever go into the more populated areas of Nairobi or “downtown” in the Central Business District (CBD) for that matter where a good number of people live, and work.
Well, to put it mildly, I had an eyeopener earlier this week to what I could only describe as Nairobi’s Urban Digital Divide, or, NUDD for short.
So, what exactly is NUDD? Well, its the idea I got in my head that we live in a city of digital “haves” and “have nots”. Basically, there are those who are digitally affluent and those who are not. Those who are affluent buy brand new smartphones and have “always on” Internet access at home and at work, plus a dongle for mobile Internet access. On the opposite end there are those for whom a grey market feature mobile handset and Cyber Cafes are the only way for them to be digital citizens in Nairobi.
In the context of this post, I want to illustrate the disparity that exists between Nairobi’s urban digital elite and urban digital constrained(?). There are two areas that come to mind for me, based on my excursion to downtown Nairobi – the mobile phone and Internet access.
Let me start off with the mobile phones. My trip showed me that although we keep talking about the massive numbers of mobile subscribers in Kenya, not all mobile subscribers are equal. I was surprised at the number of “grey market” mobiles being sold there under well-known brand names for prices that would only shock you. Cheap. Dirt cheap!
Most of these phones are cheap knock-offs from Asia that have features like analogue television and twin SIM cards (which have become more or less “de facto” for the middle class as they use different mobile networks based on their competitive rates for different services at different times of the day or month). These are the phones that a huge number of Wananchi (i.e. People) in Kenya actually buy and use. How good they are and whether they are durable is a question I cannot answer but they are selling like hot cakes.
The second aspect of NUDD is that of Internet access where PC-based usage is concerned. In spite of the fact that there are now lots of inexpensive computers, new and used available in Kenya, as well as liberal “deals” on mobile internet dongles and financing, there are those who cannot afford them.
Therefore, what surprised me is how well the Cyber Cafes are doing in Nairobi’s downtown area of the CBD. I went to one that had over 220 terminals and it was quite busy when we got there. The set-up was fairly simple and the furniture truly basic but they charged only Kes. 0.50 per minute – that translates to Kes. 30.00 per hour. What?! Kes. 30.00 for a full hour of internet time? What?! I could not believe how cheap Internet access was in downtown Nairobi. Clearly, I was getting an education.
In concluding, even as we talk enthusiastically about how far Kenya has come digitally with broadband and mobile technologies, the truth is there definitely a divide as to how you live digitally in the same city, such as is the case with Nairobi. NUDD is very real and I am glad I got a chance to see how the other side of Nairobi gets online, and on mobile, everyday, and possibly, in the only way they can.