The role of mobile network operators (MNOs) in Kenya’s elections

By the time you are reading this, the polls have closed in Kenya on the day of the country’s sixth general elections since the return of multiparty democracy in the early 90s.

The reactions to this and the anxiety around the results will be different to different people as everyone either prays for a favourable outcome for the candidates they are supporting and their overall political affiliation or, generally, given our history in recent times, that peace prevails.

That history in recent times is something worth a look into. Recently, Kenya’s elections have become widely enabled by technology, something that is even recognized in the laws of the country, specifically, the Elections Act of 2011 which has been revised severally. Given the wide expanse of the country, it means that, for general reliability, the technology in question obviously has to hit the channels that we focus a lot here at Android Kenya and that is things to do with mobile networks.

The electorate has had opportunities to verify their voting details via online portals that have been very mobile-friendly (maybe next time we’ll also get apps on major mobile platforms like Android?) but on election day, everyone’s focus shifts to just one thing: results transmission.

This is where parties that are of interest to us and that we cover often, namely the mobile network operators (MNOs), come into play.

There is something we like to say about the elections in this country and beyond… That you can’t visit any corner of this country and not get a Coca-cola (the soft drink) is the same way that, on election day, ballot boxes do get to every corner of the country so that the citizens, at least those who meet the requirements, are able to exercise their constitutional right to elect their representatives right from the lowest level all the way to the presidency. That bit of everyone who is eligible being entitled to cast their vote is what ropes in MNOs.

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Like Coca-cola, to some extent, their network coverage almost covers all the corners of the country. That makes them the perfect vessel for transmitting election results from all areas across the country to the national tallying centre – at the Bomas of Kenya or wherever else the electoral commission pitches tent at the time. What we see, from our television sets at home from the national tallying centre is usually what has been transmitted to the electoral commission’s servers from various tallying centres across the country and beyond (the diaspora).

By now, we are all too familiar with the (in)famous KIEMs kits. KIEMs is short for the Kenya Integrated Elections Management System – and we won’t go into the details of all of those but the said kits are part of that system. They are what’s used to verify voters at the polling station upon producing an identification document. They do this by taking one’s biometrics (thumb) and looking them up from the central servers to confirm that they do exist from the prior voter registration exercise conducted where those details were collected. That process of looking up those details, for the avoidance of too much technical jargon, is usually done via a dedicated mobile connection (either 2G, 3G or 4G – no 5G here), offered by any of the contracted mobile network operators.

Similarly, when the votes are tallied at the polling station level, the results are relayed to the electoral commission’s servers through the dedicated connection availed by the mobile network operators.

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Here’s a graphic that illustrates this process:

Once the necessary information has been relayed from the various tallying centres to the electoral commission’s servers, the work of the mobile network operators ends there and they don’t get a chance to have a look at what’s being sent either.

It is worth noting that, for redundancy (or some other) purposes, the KIEMs kits have two SIMs belonging to different mobile network operators.

Have something that you believe I need to have a look at? Hit me up: echenze [at]