Interview with Dr. Emma Otieno – Deputy Director – Universal Service Fund, Communication Authority of Kenya, on Affordability and Digital Inclusion

Dec 28, 2023 | Audio, Interviews


During November 2023,  national regulators from Eswatini, Kenya, Namibia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and Zambia took part in a 2.5 weeks training programme in Stockholm, Sweden as part of the European phase of the iPRIS training.

Alexandra Högberg from SPIDER Center interviewed Dr. Emma Otieno from the Communications Authority of Kenya along the Sweden 2023 phase. In this interview, Dr. Emma Otieno weighs in on the important role national regulators play in ensuring affordability and digital inclusion.

This interview has been edited for clarity and readability.

Emma Otieno: My name is Dr. Emma Otieno. I work with the national regulator that is the Communications Authority of Kenya. Communication authority of Kenya is a regulatory body for the ICT industry, in Kenya. Within the regulator, I work in the Universal Service Fund function, where we actually seek to support the country in achieving its digital transformation agenda through running out projects for digital inclusivity.

Alexandra Högberg: What role do you see the regulator’s playing in ensuring that Africa takes its share of the digital transformation revolution?

EO: I think the regulator is the most critical institution within the government set up for the development of ICTs. This is because the regulator is the key link between the national discussion and the global discussion, and as we all know, is that ICT development has now become a boundaries, a kind of an undertaking, and we need to have this conversation with partners with collaborators and financiers, with donors, with the technical minds, and it is a conversation that cannot happen in country. So with the regulatory linkage between the association starting from the regional associations, for instance, in East Africa, we have the East Africa community communication organisation. At the African level, we have the Africa Telecommunications Union, then we move on to like institutions like the International Telecommunications Union, that is the ITU. So, these are linkage that the regulator creates between the internal and external is the most critical. Secondly, the regulator has the expertise in terms of the different segments of what we require for digital development of digital transformation. We know about issues over competition management, Universal Service Fund, quality management, making communication services affordable, accessible, and also in terms of ensuring that there is equity. So the regulator is a person or an institution that ensures us this is all happening in a coordinated manner.

AH: What are the challenges and opportunities nationally and regionally that you think you want to highlight in terms of ensuring that we leave no one behind?

EO: There are several challenges, especially in the developing country. One is the affordability of communication services. That is an issue that we really have to address because of competing interests between how to access food, how to access other basic essentials, and communication, which has just joined this segment of what we would call basic necessities. So the cost of communication services, the cost of broadband, the cost of buying airtime, the cost of devices. And this is not being made better by the rate at which the inflation is happening in developing countries, taxation issues, these are really becoming top of the issues causing affordability or access to services. And then of course, the nature of policies that we are adopting in the developing countries and the rate at which these policies have been changed and very slow. So coming up with synergies between the legislation, the executive, and even the judiciary, arms of government so that they can bring synergy to come up with policies and regulations that are working towards enhancing affordability enhancing accessibility, enhancing availability over ICTs is quite an issue that we see, and then there’s another issue in terms of like the devices. Other than affording the service itself, access to devices in Africa because we are not a manufacturing segment of the globe, most of the times we import devices. So smart handsets, which are actually the basic of accessing broadband have become quite expensive and with the increase in the exchange rates we are seeing right now the dollar rate is going higher and higher by the day. So that means that whatever is being imported, is actually costing more. So that is really becoming an encumbrance in terms of how we can actually ensure that people have access to device, so they already have a smart device, you cannot access broadband. And also the cost of rolling out broadband is not easy. The government’s are competing with budgets. They have many, many interests, education, health. So actually, investing in rolling out infrastructure has also become quite a challenge for the countries in the developing side of this world. So affordability issues or financing, issues of devices, issues of policies and regulations that are actually ensuring that in diversity, equity inclusion, quite some of these things that we must collaboratively look at to ensure that no one is left behind.

AH: Thank you.

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