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The fibre-optic link is nearly here – but some should be worried

Apr 05, 2009 Sunday Nation, Technology

We are now getting very excited about the arrival of the various undersea fibre-optic communications cables in Kenya, are we not?

I certainly am, probably more than most. The internet is a great tool for me: it is the medium through which I communicate most often; where I conduct most of the research I need to do for my work; where increasingly I keep abreast of what is happening in the world; and where I interact with people with the same manic interests as mine.

But the internet has also been one of the biggest sources of stress in my life for the past decade. A great productivity-enhancing tool? Yeah, right. Not at our speeds. If I counted up all the hours I have spent staring at a screen waiting for a page to load or a bulky e-mail to appear, I wonder what proportion of my life has been lost just gaping. All because we did not have the foresight to see the need for good, inexpensive bandwidth in the country until very late in the day.

Let’s put all that behind us, though, and focus on what’s now about to happen. I will of course be one of the first to sign up for secure broadband, with the first company to deliver it properly. In the business world, excitement is growing about the possibilities. We are excited that the world will now open up for Kenya; that we will be able to communicate better and more cheaply; and that we will be able to promote, market and sell our goods and services more effectively.

But wait just a minute. There’s something no one seems to talk about at all. That pipe we’re so excited about moves things in both directions. It’s a two-way thing. If we are going to do business with the world more easily, the world is also going to do business with us more easily. If we are going to sell stuff, the world is also going to try to sell us stuff. And if I were in some of our businesses as they currently are, I would be feeling a little shiver down my spine.

Anyone in any doubt on this matter should pick up ‘The World is Flat’, by Thomas Friedman. That famous book outlines the profound effects the internet has had on world business, and how it has enabled so many emerging countries to use their human capital to provide cost-effective business solutions to rich markets. So far so good: we are an emerging nation, and we have great human capital too, right? Maybe – but the problem is with our competitiveness.

Too many of our services and professions have become fat and complacent, because they have never felt the chill wind of competition from all directions. If I was a Kenyan lawyer, for example, I would be more than a little concerned. All that boilerplate stuff – mundane, requiring no real value-add – that lawyers here sell for inflated fees, may become cheaply available from lawyers operating from abroad.

If I was a Kenyan accounting practice, I would also start to worry about the true value I add. If all I do is basic number-crunching and book management, well, some Indian firm is soon going to offer that at a fraction the Kenyan price – and possibly do it all much better.

The truth is, the Indians, Chinese, Koreans and many others are way ahead of us when it comes to doing business across the internet. They use their highly educated human capital to great effect, persuading western countries to outsource huge swathes of routine work to them – using the big pipe that is the internet to send the work back and forth. Our education provision is woeful compared to theirs, and they already have a head-start. And I think many of them are going to take a good look at the cushy way in which many services are sold in Kenya – legal, financial, IT support, medical, to name just a few – and see that there’s money to be made shaking up this market.

Are we ready for the shaking? This is what true connectivity does: it connects everyone to everything, affordably. After that only the most efficient providers are left standing. Many of our Internet Service Providers are going to fall by the wayside in this battle. Mere connectivity will soon be the most basic of commodities. The bandwidth-provision game will be over. Now, the battleground will shift most emphatically to service and added value – and that’s a different game.

If you are a Kenyan business with Kenyan customers you want to retain, it’s time to think very hard about what value you add to those customers’ lives. If all you do is replicable at a lower cost – it soon will be. Let’s rejoice about the undersea link, certainly – but let’s also look hard at our bonds with our customers, and the true quality of what we do. We have to play in a bigger field now.

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