I was sitting at my favourite joint last night talking to some noisemakers about everything under the sun, from our pesky football banter that almost always ends up with an Arsenal fan walking away and swearing to never talk to us again to the politics of the day and the circus that is our political system. Then something interesting happened. For some reason or the other, the Wi-Fi we’re so used to leeching whenever we’re there (which is like what? Daily?) stopped working.
My friend Tom was on his second powerbank/portable charger having exhausted his first one charging up his beaten up Samsung Galaxy S5 since the expatriate ladies he’s been after at his place of work can’t stop chatting him up on WhatsApp (the only kind of multi-tasking an actuary ever does, he makes me believe). Guess what happened next? I pulled out my Huawei MiFi (mobile Wi-Fi), set up a hotspot and we continued as if nothing had happened.
That is because we are in the year of our Lord 2017. Things have changed. For the better. More accurately, things have improved.
When we were all clearing high school, the first batch of 3G internet-enabled mobile phones was still beyond the reach of many, never mind that they had been around for a year or two. Buying things online? Unheard of. Watching news on YouTube like I do daily? For the rich. Back then, my objects of desire included Nokia and ZTE mobile phones that could access the DSTV signal. That was the only way known to most of us of getting to watch live TV on mobile. To do so over the internet would not only attract fees the price of a building in Nairobi’s Upper Hill but was almost impossible thanks to the slow internet speeds back then.
Just the other day, Tom’s car developed problems when he was on his way to meet us and he had to spend a tidy sum to get it fixed. Being the middle of the month, he had fewer options than to take a loan. No, there’s no bank that you can walk in at 6PM to apply for and receive, on the spot, a small loan to keep you going. His M-Shwari “came through” for him.
It’s easy to get lost in the chorus of complaints that we are always making online and forget the strides that we have made. I am not that old (define “old”) but I can recount a few.
My high school was pretty interesting. This is because I happened to have been at the intersection of the financial revolution that was taking place in the country. In a span of 4 years, I went from having my pocket money deposited cash money at the school bursar’s office to it being sent as a Money Order through Posta to the instant PostaPay to M-PESA.
Kids in high school would probably gasp in belief if I brought up the fact that it would take up to a week for bus fare sent from Mombasa to get to Kisumu as late as just 11 years ago. Yes, before we even knew there was something called mobile money, that used to happen. Today, my sister, who’s just clearing her high school, lives a different kind of life. One minute she’s on the phone asking for pocket money, the next she’s being sorted out by her matron after mobile money does its magic. In seconds.
2. 3G internet, exorbitant internet costs and data bundles
You don’t know what a struggle is if you never waited for as much as 10 minutes for the mobile version of the Yahoo homepage to open. Why do you think Opera mini is such a darling everywhere you go? We’ve been through hell. Then came 3G internet. It was like moving from a typical Kenyan high school diet to a five-course meal at an upmarket hotel in Nairobi.
Before the introduction of data bundles that cost as little as Kshs 8 for the 10MB bundle (which would last me an entire day on my Nokia 1680 classic), accessing the internet was a luxury. You were better off browsing at a local cyber cafe than loading that Kshs 100 credit on your mobile phone.
3. The smartphone revolution
Smartphones started becoming a common feature in the country just 7 years ago with the arrival of several devices from Asian device makers Huawei and LG. Most importantly, the arrival of the Huawei IDEOS brought the smartphone and things like applications to more people. While the Nokia mobile phones that we loved had apps on their Ovi stores, the experience wasn’t comparable to what we got to experience with the Android Market which, back then, boasted of over 60,000 applications. Today, according to AppBrain, that number is way over the 3 million mark. In Kenya, various players, like banks, are falling over themselves to introduce or re-introduce mobile banking solutions through apps in place of good old USSD shortcodes. It’s why this site exists. It’s why we’re here in the first place. The difference that 7 years can make!
4. 4G and Home internet
Safaricom has over 80,000 Kenyan homes connected to the internet through its Safaricom Home Fibre product which users can sign up for and pay using, you guessed it, mobile money. I cannot begin to describe the hustles of my late grandfather writing cheques to pay his internet bill at AfricaOnline. It’s the stuff of legend, I swear, because we had little to show for what he paid for if we are to compare what we had then versus what I am able to do today in a minute or two on the internet.
Thanks to there being an enabling environment in the form of good internet access in most parts of the country and easy means of making payments thanks to M-PESA/mobile money platforms, e-commerce has taken off in the country. Today, it is not far-fetched to see something online, want it and have it in a matter of hours. I use a variety of prepaid debit cards to buy things/pay for services online. It’s a breeze. I can’t wait for when Kenya becomes one of the countries where Google Play’s carrier billing becomes available. I mean, the 5 Windows Phone users in the country were able to do that on their dead platform, what about the millions across the country who call the Play Store home?
There’s one more thing, a lifesaver
Forget the affordable calling rates that we all enjoy today and our swanky smartphones with Truecaller that can tell we are going to sneeze even before we do. 10 years ago, Kenyans headed to the polls just like they are bound to at the end of October, to elect a new President. What happened next was something not many of us innocent young minds had anticipated. Long story short, when we resumed school the following year, the landlines were out of order as a result of the torching of the cables connecting our school with the rest of the world. Guess who the lifesaver was? South African firm Psitek’s Adondo-branded Simu ya Jamii.
We’come from far.