Samwel Poghisio – The tech innovation crusader

Samuel Losuron Poghisio joined the Cabinet in 2008, during President Mwai Kibaki’s second term. He was appointed following the National Accord that established a coalition government after the disputed presidential election of 2007, in which Kibaki had been declared the winner.

Poghisio was given the influential docket of Information and Communication, which was surprising because this ministry is seen as the nerve centre of both government and private operations in Kenya, literally controlling information that Kenyans can access on whatever platform they choose. All this was now in the hands of a coalition partner.

The ministry covered key operations like the Communications Commission of Kenya (now Communications Authority of Kenya), which regulates telecommunications and broadcasting among other functions. Poghisio’s party leader, Kalonzo Musyoka, was Vice President and it was a given that he would get some substantive Cabinet positions for his allies, such as this one.

Poghisio took over the ministry at a critical time in Kenya’s history. Interesting – and sophisticated – things were happening in the country and across the globe. So much so that Poghisio was even given two assistant ministers to start with, George Khaniri and Dhadho Godhana. His Permanent Secretary was Bitange Ndemo, a veteran of the ICT sector.

Internet connectivity was expanding and subscriptions were growing as Kenyans learned to access the Internet through their mobile phones. At the time, mobile telephony penetration was at 47 per cent while only 10 per cent of Kenyans had access to the Internet, according to the Commission’s statistics.

Internet connectivity was expanding and subscriptions were growing as Kenyans learned to access the Internet through their mobile phones.

It was also a time when tensions between the government and the media were at boiling point. The State was out to control media operations, especially after the post-election violence that had rocked the country. Media houses were blamed for fanning negative ethnic passions by broadcasting live coverage of the bloody events that unfolded after the presidential election results were announced. One of Poghisio’s first assignments was to push through a law to ‘tame’ Kenyan media.

These were extraordinary times as the new Minister sought to strike a delicate balance between the people’s right to information, media freedom, and freedom of speech on the one hand, and the politics of a coalition comprising the country’s three biggest parties on the other.

In addition, the country was faced with numerous security challenges around mobile phone usage. Members of the public were the target of mobile phone crimes as lack of proper registration processes made it near impossible to trace dodgy transactions and thefts, which in turn eroded the credibility of mobile phone service providers. The only way to curb these vices was to have all mobile phone network subscribers officially registered. Poghisio took up the matter, arguing that it was a matter of both national and business interest as it would protect the public from the threats posed by terrorism, drug trafficking, money laundering, hate messages and other crimes committed via mobile phones.

The registration of SIM cards would assist law enforcement agencies in tracing criminals engaged in such activities as well as deal with the issue of stolen handsets. At the time, phone theft (by snatchers and armed criminals) was a menace. At least one out of every 10 mobile phone owner had lost their handset. The registration of SIM card subscribers was already standard global practice; subsequently, all current users as well as buyers of new SIM cards in Kenya were required to present their ID and address details to registered mobile phone network dealers by 30 July 2010.

The directive was implemented fully only after the government threatened to switch off all non-registered lines.

By his third year at the ministry, Poghisio, who had served as Assistant Minister for Higher Education, Science and Technology between 2000 and 2002, was charging ahead to make sure Kenya became the hub of ICTs in the East African region. The main hindrance was slow Internet speeds which, incidentally, came at a higher cost. The solution lay in fibre-optic cables, the basic infrastructure for international connection in terms of broadband.

Kenya would deliver this through the Indian Ocean, and other countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, DR Congo, South Sudan and Ethiopia would then plug in. Poghisio led the government in setting up The East African Marine System (TEAMS), a 5,000-kilometre fibre-optic undersea cable that linked Mombasa on the Kenyan coast with Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It was built as a joint venture between the Government of Kenya and Kenyan operators, who hold 85 per cent shares, and UAE-based operator Etisalat, holding 15 per cent.

Construction began in January 2008 on the UAE side and arrived in Mombasa in June 2009. Construction was completed in August 2009 and went live for commercial service on 1 October. This marked a breakthrough in fibre-optic technology in Kenya, opening up the system to more projects such as the Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSy). Suddenly, Internet speeds increased for those who could afford the new fibre connection.

The 10,000-kilometre EASSy was deployed along the east and south coast of Africa to service the voice, data, video and Internet needs of the region. EASSy is one of the highest capacity systems serving Africa, linking South Africa with Sudan via landing points in Mozambique, Madagascar, the Comoros, Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti.

In the same year, SEACOM, a privately owned and operated firm, launched Africa’s first broadband submarine cable system along the continent’s eastern and southern coasts. The second Lower Indian Ocean Network submarine cable (LION2), which provides a direct link from Kenya to Madagascar, St. Paul Reunion, and Mauritius, went live in April 2012. The system also connects to the island of Mayotte, a France overseas department. The first LION cable gives Kenya alternative routes to Asia and South Africa.

These undersea cables are responsible for the high-speed Internet Kenya enjoys today. Now most buildings in major towns have fibre connection, growing not only Internet usage but also stimulating a boom in e-businesses. The growth in online shopping companies, websites and bloggers as well as an e-government system can be attributed to the advent of faster Internet connections delivered through these cables. In terms of impact and achievement, these projects stand out in Poghisio’s time at the Ministry of Information and Communication.

Building on this foundation, Kenya received its fifth undersea fibre-optic cable, which landed in Mombasa in March 2020. DARE1 delivers data speeds of 36-terabytes, which takes the crown as the fastest undersea cable in the country. The cable links Djibouti, Mombasa, and Mogadishu and Bosaso in Somalia.

Another policy he implemented to boost ICT penetration in the county was making computers more affordable by zero-rating taxes on imported hardware and accessories. Besides, the government initiated the Madaraka PC Project to build skills and capacity in the assembly of hardware components into complete PCs. To create demand for the locally assembled PCs, the ministry toyed with establishing ‘digital villages’, branded Pasha Centres, across the country to provide ICT access points in the rural areas besides enhancing IT skills in the country.

The plan was to have every constituency in the country get a minimum of eight workstations, equipped with either PCs or monitors hooked to PCs, and grouped within a 15-kilometre radius. Each digital village would also have a base station and was expected to form the basis for e-commerce in the country. Unfortunately, the project died at the pilot stage due to financing and logistical challenges.

In December 2009, Kenya activated digital signals that allowed people with converter set-top boxes to receive digital television, although a full migration to digital broadcasting was expected in 2012, when the regulator would switch off all analogue transmission. The planned shift would enable local broadcasters like KBC, NTV, KTN, Citizen and K24 to compete directly for pay-TV consumers with the likes of MultiChoice (DStv), the main operator at the time.

Poghisio missed the digital broadcast switch deadline due to preparedness concerns, as did his successor, Fred Matiang’i. The migration finally happened in February 2015. The shift to digital broadcasting, however, came at a cost and virtually turned the country into a pay-TV market, with most Kenyans required to not only buy set-top boxes or decoders but also pay subscription fees to watch free-to-air and other channels. This ‘new normal’ in the broadcast industry expanded the programming menu and also lowered entry requirements for entrepreneurs in the digital broadcast market.

Poghisio also operationalised the Kenya Yearbook Editorial Board (KYEB) in 2009 by appointing members of the board and a CEO. The Board had been established in 2007 through a Presidential Order to facilitate government communication through the Kenya Yearbook, a publication that helps Kenyans understand the national landscape better by promoting government projects and achievements.

In 2008, the government approved the creation of Konza Technology City as a flagship Kenya Vision 2030 project. Konza would be a sustainable, world-class technology hub and major economic driver for Kenya. It was initially conceived to capture the growing global Business Processing Outsourcing and Information Technology Enabled Services (BPO/ITES) sectors in Kenya.

In 2009, President Kibaki broke ground in Malili, marking the start of the development of Konza Technopolis. A Konza Technopolis Development Authority (KoTDA) board was appointed as a special purpose entity to facilitate the development.

Born in 1958, Poghisio attended primary and secondary school in Uganda before joining Makerere University in 1978 for his undergraduate studies in botany and zoology. In 1989 he went to Wheaton College for a master’s in communications before joining Lincolin University for another master’s, this time in divinity. But he has always worked in Kenya, first as a teacher at Chewoyet Secondary School and then as a lecturer at Daystar University before plunging into politics in 1988, when he was elected MP for Kacheliba Constituency on a Kenya African National Union (KANU) party ticket.

But Poghisio would be expelled from the ruling party and lose his seat just four months into his election, after he accused the government of President Daniel arap Moi of discriminating against his ethnic community, the Pokot, in resource allocation and distribution of relief food. His accomplice, Kapenguria MP Francis Lotodo, faced a similar fate.

As a Minister, one of the controversial things he will be remembered for is a law that sought to muzzle the media in Kenya. The Kenya Communications (Amendment) Bill 2008, presented by Poghisio, was passed by the 10th Parliament of Kenya and signed into law by President Kibaki on 2 January 2009. It was a contentious amendment of the Kenya Communications Act of 1998, which authorised the State to raid media houses, if necessary, and control the distribution of content. It also gave the government the right to penalise media infractions with heavy fines and prison terms, sole discretion in granting broadcast licences and control of programming content and broadcasts.

Protests by Kenyan journalists had Kibaki order a review of the Act to iron out the contentious areas. Even then, the law sticks out like a sore thumb in the Kibaki administration’s legacy.

There was also Poghisio’s decision to allow businessman Naushad Merali to sell 15 per cent of his shareholding in Zain Kenya, which at the time was Kenya’s second biggest mobile phone services operator, to Zain Group. The sale reduced local shareholding in the company to below the legal limit.

According to Kenyan law, it is mandatory to have at least 20 per cent of a telecommunications company’s shares owned by Kenyans. Merali was the only local shareholder in the company but Poghisio defended the decision, saying it was intended to make the company financially stable. However, Zain’s fortunes continued to dwindle and months later, in 2010, Bharti Airtel acquired Zain businesses in 15 African countries including Kenya.

Also of interest was the appointment of Major-General Hussein Ali as Postmaster General. Ali, a military man, had been Police Commissioner prior to this new posting. The announcement was made by President Kibaki rather than the Minister, attracting scrutiny from Parliament. The appointment was largely perceived to be more a means of creating a soft landing for Ali, who was facing headwinds in the police force, than a serious attempt to bring on board enhanced and relevant skills for the Postal Corporation of Kenya.

Besides a significant career in government, Poghisio’s involvement in politics saw him become the Senator for West Pokot County in 2017. He is also the current Senate Majority Leader.

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