Photo: Cynthia Chepkemoi

In April 2022, the Government of Kenya launched the Digital Economy Blueprint, which seeks to provide a conceptual framework for a successful and sustainable digital economy in line with Kenya’s Vision 2030 and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It defines the digital economy as “the entirety of sectors that operate using digitally-enabled communications and networks leveraging internet, mobile and other technologies” irrespective of industry. The blueprint proposed five pillars as foundations: Digital Government, Digital Business, Infrastructure, Innovation-Driven Entrepreneurship and Digital Skills and Values.

Since then, the government has been making significant investments, but how do we measure the level of internet infrastructure development? One way to do that is through the Network Readiness Index (NRI), a leading global index on the application and impact of information and communication technology (ICT). In 2022, the NRI mapped 131 economies based on: Technology, People, Governance and Impact. Here’s how Kenya ranked:

→ 77 out of 131 global economies;

→ 7th in the group of lower-middle-income countries;

→ 3rd within Africa at the sub-pillars level;

→ Main pillars - greatest strength: Technology and Governance;

→ Main pillars - greatest scope for improvement: Impact;

→ Sub-pillars - greatest strengths: Future Technologies, Governments and Trust

It also outperforms lower-middle-income countries in nine out of twelve sub-pillars: Access, Content, Future Technologies, Governments, Trust, Regulation, Inclusion, Economy and SDG Contribution.

Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, has a wide internet infrastructure, automated and accessible government services, and a citizen portal that has enhanced service delivery independent of location. As technology advances, human, economic and cultural relations are affected in both positive and negative ways, reshaping the traditionally existent social contract.

The statistics and the current social context place Nairobi as an important place of interest for Edgelands’ research, allowing us to reflect on the development of sustainable digital economies and the role of the government in providing infrastructure.

About Nairobi

Photo: Peter Okwara

Nairobi’s use of surveillance goes back as far as 1920, way before Kenya’s independence. It was a legal requirement to monitor and control social movements and the labor force under British colonial rules.

Fast forward to 1998: the US Embassy in Kenya is hit by a terrorist attack, in what is a start of a series of recurrent attacks in public spaces. In an effort to ramp up counterterrorism efforts, security increases along the Somali-Kenya border, claimed as an access route for militant group Al-Shabaab (along with other terrorist groups), striking Nairobi’s high traffic areas and other parts of Kenya.

While identity politics and human rights concerns are on the rise, two main elements are still a cause for major surveillance in Nairobi: efforts to weed out people who may have snuck into the country and the rise of news about disappearances of young people said to be radicalized by militia groups. Crime hotspots in Nairobi are shared on various social media platforms, and intelligence is shared by the Kenya Police Service, urging residents to be vigilant.

A fast-growing population, changing demographics, growing middle class, the rising cost of living, inflation, high unemployment rates and a global recession post-Covid-19 have hit this fast-growing economic hub, and its vulnerabilities are deeply exploited.

The goal of our research project is to explore the contrast between the government's focus on curbing the crime rise and the upscale in security efforts by private entities, which have been investing more and more in CCTV cameras, biometric systems, facial recognition, etc. We will explore these initiatives to glance a critical view at the new forms of social contract being developed in Nairobi.

Our Work in Nairobi

1. Crime

Crime has been on the rise in Nairobi (National Research Crime Centre). There are a series of factors contributing to this: from a global pandemic to the recently concluded national elections and the change of guard in politics.

Covid has created a series of cascading effects, affecting sources of income (especially for those working in the informal sectors) and increasing unemployment. Besides, the period of national elections tends to result in a rise of criminal activities related to electoral insecurities in different parts of the country, especially in Nairobi.

On top of that, a gap in the security administration has created space for a rise in armed and opportunist robberies in residential and commercial areas across the capital, putting the Police Service and government in the spotlight. The CBD (Nairobi’s Central Business District) is a main target, despite frequent operations conducted by the police, which has, only in November 2022, arrested over 200 motorcycle taxi operators linked to criminal activities.

But despite public efforts and the rise of private security, use of CCTV cameras and vehicle patrols across the city, domestic burglaries and muggings remain a serious security concern. Crimes are usually committed in broad daylight, with criminals targeting individuals of all ages, business premises, M-pesa operators and residential homes.

It is interesting to notice that affluent areas, such as Kilimani and Karen, and low-income settlements in the Eastlands are equally affected by criminal activities and security concerns.

2. Digital Security & Surveillance Technology

Increase of criminal activities usually lead to a rise in surveillance technologies, and Nairobi is no exception. Security is conventionally achieved through the use of defensive applications: fences, locks, bolts and mechanical devices used to secure individuals, possessions, buildings, private spaces and local authorities.

While, in the past, surveillance was targeted at specific individuals, today it targets everyone. In Kenya, a partnership between the government and private sector has deployed 1.800 CCTV cameras on major highways and major cities in the country. The project also installed a wireless infrastructure known as “Integrated Control and Communication Center” (IC3), operated by the police. The system reports any criminal activity in real time and dispatches first responders in case of emergency. It depends on automated number plate recognition and facial recognition, meaning that it became all too impossible living everyday lives without leaving digital footprints (traces we leave ourselves) and shadows (traces captured about us).

The implications of these technologies tend to be both positive and negative. While a number of citizens expressed that they can no longer exercise their right to privacy, others felt safe running their errands knowing the CCTV cameras were watching the public spaces.

3. The New Social Contract

Part of our research objectives is a better understanding of how digitalization and the use of surveillance technology impacts citizens’ relations and their government: the social contract - a term that refers to the reciprocal obligations between people, households, communities and their leaders. In this context, the concept of technology and its impact on human behavior and relation cannot be ignored.

The exact architecture of social contracts is up for each society to determine, but all social groups affect and are affected by global pressures. The UN Common Agenda Report indicates that the Internet has altered our societies as profoundly as the printing press, requiring a deep reimagining of ethics and mindsets with which we approach knowledge, communication and cohesion. While it has immense potential for accessible and rapid information and communication, the digital age has also heightened fragmentation and “echo chambers”.

Nairobi, compared to other cities in Kenya, has suffered a tremendous effect from these developments, and we believe the time is nigh to renew the social contract between its government and its people, as to rebuild trust and embrace a comprehensive vision of human rights.

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