Saturday, March 24, 2018

Pinch me, I need to wake up

So the strangest thing just occured to me. My last blog post was in March 2013 - a good 5 years ago - which also coincides with my preparations to relocate from Nairobi, Kenya to Gulu, Northern Uganda to start a new assignment with Oxfam. I ended up moving to Uganda in April, and as part of joining Oxfam I changed my work computer from a Macbook Air to a Thinkpad running Windows - in compliance with the organizational policy at that time.

Prior to this I had been solely using Macbook for all my computing for just over 12 years. (I decided to try out a Mac after a spanking new, slim, slick and beautiful Sony Vaio laptop got stolen from my hotel room in Tanzania while I was attending a conference.) Needless to say I never looked back after switching to Apple and went through 3 different Macbooks over the pursuant 12 years. So, here I am, April 2013, going through the trauma (believe me it is) of changing from full time use of a Macbook to full time use of a Windows based machine. It took quite some time but after several months the transition was complete and I was happily chugging along doing all my work on this platform.

Three years after the move to Uganda (after completing my contract with Oxfam) I found myself headed to the warm heart of Africa, Malawi to take up a new assignment at the helm of SimbaNET Malawi a newly formed company that was part of the Wananchi Group of Companies headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya. Once again, due to company policy, I found myself working in a Windows environment, on an HP Pavilion laptop. It has been 2 years since then and  have just about had it. A month ago I started the search for a replacement computer with one unbendable condition - it had to be an Apple. I must confess that I was quite pleasantly surprised at the variety of laptops that have come out over the past 5 years. From the Macbook Air 11' all the way to the latest Macbook Pro 15' with Touch Bar. with the Macbook 12' in between and all the variants of 13' from Macbook Air and Macbook Pro.

I have (very luckily) come across someone in Malawi selling their 3 month old Macbook Pro 13' with Touch Bar, and it has exactly the specs that I was looking for. The excitement in me is unimaginable
and it seems to have unlocked (or maybe I should say unblocked) whatever it is that had stifled my blogging/writing/creativity. This is what has struck me as very strange, peculiar and rather odd. And seemingly is the pinch that has "woken me up".

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 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.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Frontier bursting - the setup of Kenya's Internet Exchange Point - KIXP

Note: This piece is an excerpt from a paper published by Summit Strategies in 2006 which evaluated the impact of KIXP between 2002-2006

Frontier bursting   the local internet space -   the case of Brian Longwe, 2006

One of the things that always puzzled me during the early days of our country’s Internet and while I was network manager for one of our first Internet Service Providers was the incredible delays on delivery of electronic mail to other local providers. After running a number of different diagnostics it became apparent that messages from my network to another local ISPs network – were going out of the country, to Europe, then across the Pacific ocean to the USA, then over to Asia before finding their way to their destination which was in many cases literally across the street!

This was obviously an unacceptable state of affairs and the subject of this inefficient routing of local traffic came up several times in discussions at the East African Internet Association (EAIA) – a group that I was involved in that brought together providers and consumers alike to share knowledge and experiences gained from the information-rich Internet. During these discussions various suggestions were tabled as to how we could deal with this problem, but none of them had the ring of truth to them that gave one the deep certainty that the problem once solved would remain solved.

Kenya Internet Exchange Point Losing it's Relevance?

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.

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 local traffic is being exchanged in exotic places like Mumbai, London etc instead of right here at home.

So, I continue shaking my head...

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A small step for Government but a leap for Kenya

Today a story broken by the Daily Nation had the sensational headline "CCK Sparks Row with Fresh Bid to Spy on Internet Users". The story has triggered a very lively debate both in conventional broadcast as well as online media. While many feel threatened about the alleged invasion of their privacy, some of the more clued up are welcoming this development. The 'row' alluded to by the author the DN article seems to be attributed to some telecoms service providers reactions towards letters received from the CCK requiring them to cooperate in the installation of internet traffic monitoring equipment which the article refers to as "Network Early Warning System (NEWS)". Apparently CCK has clearly stated that the system will support the country's ability to detect and facilitate response to possible cyber threats.

Kenya as a country has had her fair share of threats, both online or in the form of cyber-threats as well as in real life. The most significant of these was the bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi which took place on August 8th 1998 (a day before my wedding!) and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people. The bombing, which took place simultaneously with a similar attack in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania was attributed to Al-Qaeda, the fundamentalist terrorist group associated with Osama bin Laden. The 1998 incident cast a spotlight on Kenya's low level of preparedness to deal with major disasters and also raised a lot of questions about our ability as a country to gather intelligence and act on it.

A grenade blast which killed two and and led to the near capture of one of the most wanted Al-Qaeda terrorists at a cybercafe in Mombasa in 2003 in an operation carried out jointly between Kenyan and CIA operatives was a result of close coordination between security agencies as well as the use of "high tech gear, low tech human intelligence and courage". Part of the high tech gear involved in this operation allowed the security officers to track and monitor "patterns" of online communication that allowed them to close in on the terrorists. In this incident and a few other similar ones it has always been reported that the "Kenyan authorities used information provided by" [foreign nation], why can't we have our own capability to gather such information? Especially when it seems that the terrorists use online technologies for much of their planning.

It is therefore my opinion that the move by Kenya to improve her ability to detect and facilitate response to cyber-threats is a small step for the Government but a huge leap for the country. This exercise, coupled with the impending setup of the Kenya Computer Incident Response Team Coordination Centre (KE-CIRT/CC) with support from the ITU will go a long way towards enhancing the Government's obligation to protect her citizens.