Nairobi’s Urban Digital Divide, or, NUDD for short.

A large and dimly lit Cyber Cafe in downtown Nairobi

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.

Street view, downtown Nairobi.

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.

Grey market mobile handsets in downtown Nairobi stalls.

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.

Kes. 0.50 cents per minute for Cyber Cafe Internet time.

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.

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  1. Dan Kinuthia
    February 4, 2011 at 3:11 pm — Reply

    Tell me seriously, is there any business sense in having price wars? Rates come down to woo customers, rent goes up, utilities not to mention ISP charges forcing winding up after a long struggle. knock-offs are okay for now they gave brand names a wake up call and a run for their niche.

  2. Kevin
    February 4, 2011 at 3:11 pm — Reply

    Most techpreneurs ignore the digital divide to their peril and you see it in the numbers being thrown around about internet penetration in Kenya.

    A web user in Riverside drive is completely different from a web user in say, Jericho. Yet if you look at web usage statistics, both are usually bundled up together.

    Web access is not the great equalizer, it merely allows people who would not be in contact to be connected. Offline demographics persist even online because at the end of the day, everything boils down to disposable income.

  3. February 7, 2011 at 4:07 pm — Reply

    Great insights. Perhaps you might know this – Apart from the price factor, are there other factors that make guys flock for the grey market phones? Am thinking the dual sim feature that is inexistent with most genuinely manufactured handsets (Samgsung options aside) is a big crowd puller.

    Any thoughts?

  4. February 10, 2011 at 7:45 am — Reply

    Web statistics being bandied about are an indication that most players in the ICT market are in fact ignorant on what business they are in. Quite frankly Safaricom’s focus on that market one of the reasons for its success.
    I live on this side of town. To get my access @ home connection was a real issue. The accounts remained highly mismanaged. No clear contract arrangements. The use of sub contractors to install and maintain equipment did not assist the situation.
    In most African markets the bulk cannot afford access to the mainstream systems and networks. This was the mobile phone market pre-Safcom in the late 90’s. By reducing the Average Revenue Per User and adopting very competitive pricing Safcom made the their business profitable on the back of the masses. Think of the Cyber with 200+ units, what do you think is the walk-in customer rate a day? How long does a PC remain vacant?
    The players in the broadband market need to invest for long term and create more affordable pricing models to bring more low income earners on to their balance sheets and bottom lines. Fortunately Safaricom’s long term strategy is just that. I wonder if ISP’s will focusing on the retail market will outlast Safaricom and Airtel jostling. All in all, these are interesting times. Great post by the way.

  5. November 6, 2011 at 1:06 pm — Reply

    […] [EAS] – The shaping of a New World Order [Al Jazeera] – Africa’s top five billionaires [ABR] – Nairobi’s Urban Digital Divide, or, NUDD for short. [MK] – The luckiest dictator in Africa [Independent] – Tweets don’t foment rebellion; rebellions […]

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