Eliud OWALO, Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of ICT and the Digital Economy, Kenya

Eliud Owalo, Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of ICT and the Digital Economy, Kenya: “Complex negotiations require a more strategic approach”

This interview is also available in French.

How does Kenya choose its external partners to carry out its digital transformation strategy (Kenya National Digital Master Plan 2022-2032), especially on digital infrastructure and services?

The government has identified its key priorities in several documents, including Vision 2030 economic blueprint, Kenya National Digital Masterplan, Kenya Digital Economy Blueprint, the Plan (Manifesto), National ICT Policy 2019, and the Bottom-Up Economic Transformation Agenda. These priorities aim to address various areas, such as job creation, poverty eradication, and revenue generation, by expanding the tax base, food security, reducing the cost of living, and improving the foreign exchange balance.

When engaging with external partners, the government considers their contributions to these key development priorities. Partnerships can take different forms, including Government to Government collaborations, engagement with development partners, public-private partnerships, and involvement of private partners. To ensure proper funding and implementation of digital infrastructure and services, the government follows a consultative process and has secured a pathway for funding. This process involves procurement and engaging with relevant stakeholders.

Furthermore, all government projects undergo a public investment management process, which includes project identification and conceptual planning, feasibility and appraisal, project selection for budgeting, and other necessary steps. This process helps ensure effective management and allocation of resources for government initiatives.

China has been a key partner in Kenya’s digital transformation strategy. What are the key incentives for the Kenyan government to engage extensively with China? 

China is one of Kenya's strategic partners in its digital transformation journey. Kenya is committed to collaborating with various development partners to achieve its development agenda, always prioritising Kenya's interests in these engagements.

Through the partnership with the Government of China, Kenya has successfully implemented and expanded its ICT infrastructure. This includes the establishment of fibre connectivity, the Konza National Data Centre, and the development of Smart City Facilities.

Additionally, Kenya has also benefited from partnerships with other development partners, including with France on the implementation of the National Optic Fibre Backbone Infrastructure (NOFBI) Phase 1 through SAGEM; with Belgium on the Last Mile County Connectivity Project (CCP) facilitated by Soulco; and with the US through Google’s connectivity project. These collaborations with various partners have played a significant role in advancing Kenya's digital infrastructure and connectivity initiatives.

How to best negotiate digital projects with external partners? What are the best practices in terms of technology transfer, local employment and local content and data protection? Please provide examples.

All the digital projects pursued by the Government of Kenya are aligned with our key priorities. The Government of Kenya handles negotiations proactively. They are based on the Government’s strategic plans and other guiding documents. It does not simply react to moves by other parties. While this approach may work in many cases, complex negotiations require a more strategic approach. Considerations for such negotiations include starting with a plan, identifying limits and boundaries, understanding the external partner's motivations, building solid relationships, being flexible, and recognising that hard stances hardly achieve much.

In the case of public-private partnership (PPP) projects, there is a dedicated department at the National Treasury. Furthermore, all projects are guided by the Public Investment Management processes, ensuring proper oversight and management.

The effectiveness of these practices ultimately depends on the specific industry and context in which they are implemented. However, some general best practices are applicable.

In terms of technology transfer, it is crucial to incorporate a strong component of local capacity building into project implementation. This ensures a clear understanding of the technology and strengthens the internal capacity to support it. Attention should also be given to proprietary licenses, intellectual property rights, and the establishment of proper agreements between the involved parties.

Promoting local employment opportunities and the use of local materials is a requirement during project implementation. The government encourages the youth to pursue technical-vocational courses to prepare for these opportunities. Additionally, efforts are made to create a diverse and inclusive work environment that respects local customs and practices. It is important to identify and collaborate with local market and service providers to promote local content whenever possible. This not only creates local jobs but also contributes to the development of the local economy. It is essential to establish realistic and achievable local content requirements and provide adequate support to the local market to meet these requirements.

Since the enactment of the Data Protection Act in 2019, compliance with data protection aspects has become a legal requirement. Organisations must implement robust security measures such as access controls, encryption, and regular backups to protect data. Data policies should align with relevant legal and regulatory requirements. Regular training for staff on data protection best practices and security threats is also essential, and guidance can be sought from the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner.

Overall, the key to effective technology transfer, local employment, local content, and data protection practices is to collaborate with local communities and stakeholders, understand their needs and priorities, and tailor interventions accordingly. This approach builds trust, promotes sustainability, and delivers long-lasting benefits for all parties involved. Kenya has ongoing bilateral agreements with countries worldwide, development partners, and the private sector.

What is the Kenyan government’s approach to digital sovereignty? How to best push forward the establishment of digital norms and digital governance on issues like cyber surveillance?

Digital sovereignty for Kenya is an important factor, as is the case for territorial integrity. This is so because it gives us control of our digital infrastructure, systems, and data. This ensures the protection of our national security, economic security, and individual privacy. It also gives power as a country on how our data is used.

Kenya’s approach to digital sovereignty is through the development of our trusted digital infrastructure that encompasses networks, data centres, and applications.

Another approach is to regulate technology partners, guaranteeing compliance with our legal and regulatory frameworks, policies, common standards, best practices, and digital norms for the digital world. Kenya also advocates for cyber diplomacy, building trust among nations and fostering cyber hygiene.

However, several challenges persist, including the high costs associated with developing and maintaining our digital infrastructure, difficulties in regulating technology partners based outside Kenya, and non-compatibility between national laws and international standards. Despite these challenges, digital sovereignty remains a crucial objective for many countries. As the digital world becomes increasingly interconnected, it becomes essential for nations to exercise control over their digital infrastructure and data. Several examples demonstrate the growing importance of digital sovereignty around the world. The European Union has implemented various initiatives to enhance digital sovereignty, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the European Cybersecurity Act. China has made substantial investments in its digital infrastructure, including 5G networks and artificial intelligence. The United States is also working towards strengthening its digital sovereignty through initiatives like the CHIPS Act (Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors) and Science Act.

Digital sovereignty is a complex issue, but its significance continues to grow. With the increasing interconnectedness of the digital world, countries must retain control over their digital infrastructure and data to ensure their sovereignty.

What is your opinion on the geopolitical rivalries in the digital sector especially when it pertains to Africa? To what extent does it affect the way Kenya carries out its digital strategy? How should African governments manage this rivalry?

My view is that geopolitical rivalries in the digital sector should be managed through peaceful competition. Kenya does not take sides in technological rivalries. For example, our country enjoys cordial bilateral relationships with both the US and China. Recently, Kenya successfully hosted the American Chamber of Business (AMCHAM) business forum, where the President announced several mutually beneficial undertakings. As a nation, we remain open to engagement with other countries that are willing and able to provide digital solutions.

What is the Kenyan perspective on data governance debates in multilateral institutions? What bargaining leverage for African governments in shaping the global discourse on internet and data governance?

Kenya continues to engage multilateral bodies like the European Union and the United Nations on the issue of cross-border data transfer and the need to ensure full compliance with the data protection act. Data governance debates in multilateral institutions are a crucial factor that cannot be left out in the digital transformation agenda of African Union member states. Bargaining leverage for African governments on shaping the global discourse on the internet and data governance can be achieved through dialogue and communication between the State and non-State actors. In these forums, we advocate for our national interests in cyberspace through diplomacy and cybersecurity policies, the protection of human rights in cyberspace and the development of international cyber laws. 

This interview is part of the Negotiating Africa’s digital partnerships: interview series led by Dr Folashade Soule with African senior policymakers, ministers, private and civic actors to shed a light on how African actors build, negotiate and manage strategic partnerships in the digital sector in a context of geopolitical rivalry. The series is part of the Negotiating Africa’s digital partnerships policy research project hosted at the Global Economic Governance programme (University of Oxford) and supported by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).