Wednesday, March 13, 2013

My reflections on #140Friday and the (failed) Policy Paper

Every once in a while you find a cause or initiative that resonates with your values, passions and interests. That is what happened when, last year a heated debate on twitter  between techies, IT entrepreneurs and the public sector led to a call for a physical face-to-face meeting to thrash out the issues. The main focus of the debate was the question of why most of the juicy IT deals tend to go to multinationals or overseas IT companies. Over the course of the online debate a number of issues came to the fore, these included shortcomings or weakness that hindered local IT companies from obtaining large projects; other issues also included public procurement policy and practice which effectively locked out local companies. Once there was consensus to have a face-to-face meeting I was nominated to pull it together, make it happen and effectively facilitate the whole engagement.

The Nailab, a leading incubator, offered their offices as a venue for the meeting. In preparing, I not only reached out to key players in industry, government and civil society but also involved the media. We were able to get the attention of Nation Media's CEO Linus Gitahi and he approved our use of one of their business anchors, Larry Madowo, as a moderator for the face to face debate. The first debate was very well attended, the issues well articulated, the dialogue fresh and frank. A number of actions points came out of the first debate and these included:
  • ICT businesses (both large, small and startup) needed to organize themselves into a single industry body that could act as an interface between government and industry
  • Develop a policy paper for presentation to Government which captured a vision for the growth and development of the ICT industry in Kenya as well as a roadmap of actions that could get us there.
Strangely and somewhat unexpectedly, the responsibility for coordinating the above two action points fell to me. I did not shrink from the task but made it clear that since I did not have an IT business of my own, and was not at the time part of any local company that I would simply try to act as a facilitator but that actions would have to come from the stakeholders themselves. We then brainstormed and figured out that it would be best for the industry association to be prioritized, as the drafting of the policy paper proceeded in order that the industry body would be the one that presented the completed paper. A target was set of presenting the paper at the Connected Kenya Summit which was to take place in the first week of April.

In the process of thinking about how best to handle the industry body action point, an organization called KITOS (Kenya IT and Outsourcing Society) offered itself as the vehicle which could be used to bring industry together. This was received fairly well by most, albeit with some concern that the organization had been primarily known as being representative of those active in the BPO and ITES sector. These concerns were waived by the incumbent officials at KITOS who said that a simple name change could totally transform the perception and make the organization's name sound more representative. This then led to a few meetings where KITOS introduced itself to industry stakeholders in the #140Friday process. In these meetings discussions on membership criteria, membership fees etc were discussed. After it was clear that dialogue had been established between KITOS and it's potential members I exited from the scene as it was now up to them to thrash things out and make it happen. A parting shot that I left was that I felt that the membership categories and accompanying fees did not provide an entry point for poor startups or freelancers to join, and that they were an equally important part of the value chain and industry.

I then carried on with focus meetings with various individuals to crystallize the policy paper draft which would be presented at the Connected summit. This process went well and eventually time for the event arrived. But KITOS asked me to present on their behalf as they had not yet finalized their stuff. With a lot of support from Mike Macharia of Seven Seas and advice from Paul Kukubo of the ICT Board I presented the draft. It was my expectation that KITOS would thereafter continue with the role and actions that were agreed on in the first #140Friday meeting. Including finalizing/polishing the policy paper for formal submission to Government

Some rumours seem to have been going round over the past few months that I had failed to deliver a policy paper from industry to Government. I HAD FAILED? This is what has led me to write this account, not to vindicate myself but to put the facts out there for scrutiny for anyone who might have given ear to those who for whatever reason are seeking to cast aspersion upon me. I may have many failings but I will not sit down and take responsibility for the failings of others.

This year, the Nailab and I have decided to pick up, dust off and relaunch the lively #140Friday ICT debates as they proved a very effective tool to galvanize debate, discussion and action on current affairs in the ICT sector.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Which way for the Kenya Internet Exchange Point?

The Structure I proposed to TESPOK
About 7 or 8 years ago, when I was still on the board of directors of TESPOK, I suggested a governance structure that gave KIXP independence from TESPOK, it's 'mother' institution. The main rationale here was to ensure that KIXP maintains a separate, independent existence, regardless of what happened to TESPOK. 

This was during a TESPOK strategy meeting where the key message was "The African ISP is dead, long live the African ISP" based on a paper by Russell Southwood of Balancing Act Africa. The essence of which was that with the onslaught of mobile operators going into internet access provision, the only way that ISPs would survive would be through consolidation via mergers/acquisition or a complete redefinition of business focus and strategy. What was evident to me (but seemingly not to others) was that as the ISP industry transformed, there would be fewer players, and thus, less democracy - especially with regards to governance issues. 

At the same time, KIXP was attracting plenty of interest from non-ISPs and already had non-ISP members such as KENIC, KRA and others - it was evident that the interest would continue, especially as the sector evolved with greater participation from content creators, hosting companies, data-centres etc... KIXP would become the de-facto facility for providing industry actors with data interconnection and interchange.

Current structure as per an Independent study on KIXP, 2006
For those of you unfamiliar with KIXP's history - in 2001 we had to register a company KIXP Ltd, and file for an IXP license from CCK, in order to become operational after the forced closure of the IXP in 2000. My proposal was that KIXP Ltd be given full autonomy from TESPOK, have a board of directors appointed by members in full standing, and be run as a business, similar to LINX in the UK, and other successful IXPs around the world. As part of my proposals I shared the attached diagram (which I have just found in my archives). The Board would identify and appoint a CEO, who would then identify suitable staff to meet organisational growth. Being a business, some implied issues were self-sustainability, a business plan with clear growth, and social or financial returns for the 'shareholders'.

My proposals fell upon deaf ears and it is sad for me now to see a frail and seemingly weak KIXP that cannot seem to consistently engage newcomers to the industry with the benefits of local traffic exchange.

A simple question - how many of the TEAMs/SEACOM/EASSY bandwidth-holders are peering at KIXP? As mentioned by someone else concerned about optimal traffic flows in Kenya, some of our traffic is being exchanged in exotic places like Mumbai, London etc...

So, I continue shaking my head...