5 key takeaways for ICT development in the Caribbean from Silicon Savannah

Within the last seven years, Kenya, which has been dubbed “Silicon Savannah”, has become one of the leading ICT destinations in Africa, and is being increasingly recognised globally as a hotbed for tech innovation. This post highlights five takeaways from the Kenyan experience.

Caribbean Open Data Conference LogoYesterday, 11 April, was Day 1 of the two-day Caribbean Open Data Conference, which concludes later today. The event, which is themed “Developing the Caribbean”, is in its third year and focuses primarily on Open Data ‘as a catalyst for regional development, and the role of software development as a locus of innovation’ (Source: event website). The conference also includes a 24-hour Code Sprint or hackathon, where within 24 hours, teams of programmers compete to develop software applications using publicly available datasets. Similar to last year, conferences and/or hackathons are being held in: Cuba; Dominica Republic; Guyana; Jamaica; Suriname; Trinidad & Tobago.

At the Jamaica leg of the conference, the keynote speaker was Mr. Paul Kukubo, Chief Executive Officer of the Kenya ICT Board, a statutory corporation under the Ministry of Information and Communications that oversees the development of the marketing of Kenya as and ICT investment destination. Mr. Kukubo gave a riveting talk in which he shared some of Kenya’s strategies to become the ICT hub of East Africa. Outlined below are five learnings that Caribbean countries should consider in order to realise their own ICT-related development goals.

Paul Kukubo at Caribbean Open Data Conference (Jamaica)
Paul Kukubo at Caribbean Open Data Conference (Jamaica)

1. Have specific and measurable goals. Although this point might seem obvious, many countries still use considerable rhetoric when framing their initiatives: “we aim to be the best ____”, or “our goal is be a leading destination for ____”. Effectively those statements do not say much. More importantly, they in no way highlight any of the critical requirements that must be satisfied in order to achieve the desired goals.

In the case of Kenya, its vision, as per its National ICT Masterplan 2012—2017, is that “Kenya becomes Africa’s most globally respected knowledge economy”. However, underpinning that overarching outcome, a number of specific and measurable goals have been articulated, such as with respect to:

  • IT industries development and innovation – creating 50,000 jobs, 500 organisations and 20 global facing innovations, and
  • ICT in industry – it should contribute at least 25% to GDP, and local SMEs should have at least 60% automation.

2. Measure performance regularly. Regardless of the goal, it is important for countries to gauge their progress regularly to determine, among other things, whether or not, or the extent to which current activities are yielding the desired results, or whether any additional interventions might be necessary. It is therefore critical from the outset that the appropriate indicators are identified and tracked.

In a similar vein, especially when competitive goals have been established, it is also important for countries to measure or validate their performance against other locations, in order to determine whether, relative to those countries, the overall outcomes are being achieved. For example, although Country X may implement a suite of improvements that should reflect favourably in an international assessment, other countries are also making improvements. Hence when the countries are all compared, Country X’s efforts might appear negligible relative to those of other countries, which could result in no improvement, or even a lowering, in its ranking.

3. Encourage private sector execution. Recently, Caribbean governments have been regularly encouraging private sector involvement in a number of their programmes and initiatives. Frequently, the impetus for these solicitations from governments is the fact that they are unable to finance many of those projects, and are hoping for private investors support.

Although financing challenges may still need to be resolved, Mr. Kukubo focussed on project implementation, and recommended that countries establish systems that fostered private sector execution for important initiatives.

While many Caribbean governments might baulk at this approach, due to the loss of control that would result, in highly competitive environments, such as ICT investment and development, it is crucial for key sector organisations to be agile, responsive and empowered to make speedy decisions. To do otherwise would be not only counterproductive, but also counterintuitive for organisations that are supposed to be on the cutting edge of dynamic industries, and spearheading critical national projects, to be unduly mired in government bureaucracy, protocol and processes.

4. Secure cheerleaders. For any transformative project that is being undertaken, it is absolutely critical that it has cheerleaders. To be clear, these “cheerleaders” should be senior government officials that can, among other things,

  • drive the policy development and implementation processes
  • advocate for and defend the project
  • ensure that the project receives the support it needs at the highest political levels
  • lobby for the removal of roadblocks and bottlenecks that could affect the project’s success.

5. Ensure there is sufficient political will. Finally, although it might appear somewhat redundant to emphasise the need for political will for government-initiated projects, the focus of this learning is the impact of, and the ways in which that support is demonstrated. Too frequently across the Caribbean, governments initiate or develop certain projects that are considered critical for the countries they serve. However, issues such as, a true lack of ownership of and accountability for the project by the political directorate, government bureaucracy and process inefficiencies, etc., derail successful and timely implementation.

In the Kenyan situation, there was a sense that the country’s ICT development programme not only had the highest political support, but perhaps more importantly, the will of the government to address or manage roadblocks and other challenges that could affect successful realisation of its goals. Hence the government and its functionaries were prepared to act with requisite focus and alacrity, and considerable successes have resulted.

In summary, most Caribbean countries have recognised ICTs as important drivers of economic and social development, and to varying degrees have developed plans or strategies through their goals can be realised. Although much of what Mr. Kukubo shared was not new, it reiterated the fact that with the appropriate focus, drive and commitment developing countries can make transformational changes in their economies. Too often, we stand in the way of our own greatness.

 

Image credits: Caribbean Open Data Conference (logo); ICT Pulse

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