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Kenya: Gaming Cafés & Youth ICT

Fixed on the right hand side of the red-painted wall are two flat 32-inch gaming screens, a wooden-bench slightly slanting to the back cuts across the single room to touch both ends of the wall. Capturing your attention at the entrance is the name ‘High Ground Gaming Café’ written in white against a black background.

Compared to Nairobi city where these are a common feature, gaming cafés are rather a new phenomenon in this agricultural cum industrial town of Nakuru in the expansive Rift Valley province 160 km Northwest of Nairobi, Kenya.  The cafés have however increased from three in 2012 to more than twenty in 2013 in Nakuru.

As I climb the stairs that lead to the third floor of the building where this café is located, I meet numerous youths as they run briskly up and down. Some spend a whole day pressing remote controls with their eyes fixed on the screens, others are more restrained. But the sounds of different games and action movies constantly flow down the stairs accompanied by claps, laughter and shouts as the youths cheer their favourites.

High Ground Gaming Café belongs to Douz Moses, a 23 year old holder of a diploma in computer engineering. Having graduated from college in 2012, he decided to train in ICT and digital and is passionate about technology.

Moses is among the group of pioneers of these cafés in Nakuru town and is doing a rolling business. When he is not taking youths through game-playing techniques, he is sitting on a four-legged modern chair behind the counter.

“Youths come here primarily to enjoy playing games, relax their minds mostly after spending long hours in classrooms and just have fun and socialise, after that they part with some money,” says Moses.

Youths flock to his café in large numbers especially during school holidays. In a normal day, Moses gets a minimum of Sh.1000 ($10) while in a busy day he can make up to Sh.4000 ($50).

 “I spent between Sh.200,000 ($2350) and Sh.250,000 ($2950) to open this café; I spent the money in renting this room at sh8,500 ($100), buying the TV sets each at Sh.60,000 ($700), buying PlayStation at Sh.45,000 ($530) and to paying for a number of licences. I have however, managed to recoup the expenses,” states Moses.

On my way back downstairs I meet twenty five-year old Anthony Waweru, another gaming café operator. He laments about rising competition but appreciates that the gaming business is doing well so far.

“When I joined hands with a friend to start up this café, there were very few people who had similar businesses, the cafés are now increasing rapidly and the business is booming,” says Anthony.

Former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication Mr Bitange Ndemo says ICT and digital technology bring numerous opportunities touching on virtually all fields. “The opportunities, especially for young people, are bound to increase, for example now the government will be rolling out the computer for schools program, the tech-savvy youths will be the ones to develop content for this program,” Ndemo explains in a telephone interview. 

Mr Ndemo notes that currently the government is automating services in a move that will provide many job opportunities in the digital area. He believes that computer applications are increasingly becoming important in different areas of development like health, agriculture and business.

Mr Ndemo adds that youths are also using ICT to affect national issues. “They are using it to mobilise, organise and lead action for political change.”

A new survey by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) shows that many youths in Kenya, curious to know what is going on around them, were embracing ICT. “The changing media landscape in Kenya, due in part to the increased availability of cheap web-enabled mobile phones, has changed the way young people seek information, entertain and make new connections.” 

While appreciating the rapid expansion of social and digital media among young people in Kenya, UNICEF laments that there is easy access to harmful content like pornography. The report states that parental support and integration of digital media in education was lagging behind.

“There is easy access to pornography, games and entertainments but there are fewer visible examples for parents and their children of how social media and digital technologies can be used for education, information, opportunity and empowerment”, states the report.

Victor Okeyo, an ICT expert and lecturer at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Nakuru agrees that development in digital technology was fraught with social ills.

“There is advanced software that can be used to access even blocked sites like pornographic sites or other sites glorifying terrorism and drugs, there is also the challenge of e-waste,” notes Okeyo.

To contain the inappropriate use of digital technology, UNICEF recommends an understanding of digital use and safety before designing the content of digital safety information programs. It urges creation of online and offline digital safety campaigns, providing relevant information to youths on digital risks and balancing digital information with emphasis on the usefulness of the internet in areas such as education, research, security and commerce.

A group of youths in Kibera, an informal settlement in the outskirts of Nairobi city, exemplified positive use of ICT. In 2012, the group produced the first comprehensive map of their community using digital open mapping technique. The Kibera youths with their map and Moses with his café are excellent examples of youths using ICT in a positive way.

Kenya has experienced exponential growth in internet use. By the end of 2012, there were 14,032 million internet users in this East African nation, according to Communication Commission of Kenya CCK, a body mandated to regulate media activities.  

However, CCK notes that less than 5% of people living in rural areas in Kenya use internet in spite of growth in the number of internet users from 1.7 million people in 2007 to 10 million people in June 2011.

Lack of infrastructure, low purchasing power and the high costs of technology gadgets and services such as TVs, internet, and mobile phones inhibit digital connectivity for youths in rural areas. Mr Ndemo echoes these sentiments adding that lack of electricity in rural areas and high costs of digital tools hindered internet connectivity.

UNICEF says that the National Optic Fibre Infrastructure (NOFBI) is based on an old administrative boundaries system that had not taken into consideration the current system devolution of resources into county governments.

The national electricity grid is also yet to reach some of the remote villages of Kenya’s arid and semi-arid areas. “This means that internet access in certain rural areas is typically of a low speed and high cost, the uptake of technology is therefore facing challenges”, states the report.

According to the World Forum‘s 2011-2012 survey, Kenya stands at position 93 out of 142 countries in terms of technological readiness. This relatively poor performance can be attributed to low individual ICT usage due to expensive broadband subscriptions.

However, the Kenyan government has developed a National ICT Master plan for 2012-2017 with a vision to make Kenya Africa’s most globally respected knowledge economy. The plan aims to see every resident, citizen, home and institution connected through a countrywide robust, accessible and affordable ICT infrastructure.

In the end it is such connectivity that will see increased uptake of technology and provide more opportunities for youths like Moses and Anthony to come up with income-generating initiatives like the gaming cafés.

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Peter Kahare

Peter Kahare is a journalist and freelance writer based in Kenya East Africa.

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