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Wednesday, 5 July, 2000, 20:00 GMT 21:00 UK
Internet fever grips Kenya
Aitec exhibition in Nairobi
Microsoft tries to woo Kenyans over to e-commerce
By Gray Phombeah in Nairobi

Internet fever has struck Kenya, where electronic trading, popularly known as e-commerce, has become the latest buzzword.

Small firms and huge companies are equally affected, and vie to sport or internet names.

Companies like the internet because they can buy or sell a product on it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and many shoppers like it because they can often buy products more cheaply that way.

To cater for this growing market, a three-day exhibition of Information Technology has just been held at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi.

Business opportunities

About 80 local and international companies, including giants like Microsoft, displayed their digital wares.

David Kiania of Virtual City company in Nairobi
Pioneering 'e-touch': David Kiania of VirtualCity
Anthony Karanja, the Kenya sales manager of Aitec, a UK-based firm that organised the exhibition, is convinced that the year 2000 will prove "the year of the in Kenya".

"It is time we caught up with the new ways of doing business." said Mr Karanja. "E-commerce will give us an opportunity to do that because of the globalisation of IT and of business trends."

He said that e-commerce allowed business to cut costs and to export more cheaply.

VirtualCity, the only e-tailer in Nairobi with a virtual storefront up and running, makes a similar point at its stand.

"The message is that we can use electronic commerce to improve on companies' performance and to get African products and services bought in Western or developed countries," said VirtualCity's David Kiania.

Cut-price access

Also drawing its share of the buzz was, an Internet Service Provider named after the Swahili word for citizens, which has been dubbed the poor man's ISP.

The informal sector could ...start to sell their services and products via the internet

Njeri Rionge of
With internet connection fees usually costing about 10,000 Kenyan Shillings a month (more than $150) , offers full internet access for a tenth of the price at any time of day.

Its managing director, Njeri Rionge, says that cutting prices enables the company to bring the internet within reach of the common man.

"That, in my view, would increase internet usage and therefore facilitate the possibility of people setting up internet cafes or internet businesses," he said.

"Or the informal sector could put information about their products and services onto a website that would be designed by us, and (so) start to sell their services and products via the internet."

Africa Online site at Aitec 2000 exhitition
AfricaOnline: planning walk-in centres
Also confident about the prospects for the internet is AfricaOnline, the largest internet portal in East Africa.

The company is pursuing plans to promote its new internet product, known as e-touch, a network of walk-in centres that offers e-mail and internet access to rural as well as urban residents.

"We currently have e-touch centres all over the country, including Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret, Nakuru and Central Province.

"E-touch is a concept that is taking Internet and email services to the ordinary Kenyan citizen at affordable rates," says Douglas Gatobu, AfricaOnline's e-touch support engineer.

Phone problems

The conference shows that there is no shortage of dreamers in Kenya.

E-touch is a concept that is taking Internet and email services to the ordinary Kenyan at affordable rates

Douglas Gatobu of Africa Online
The number of Internet Service Providers is expected to rise from the current 15 to 40 this year, joining the scramble for the eyeballs of Kenya's 100,000 or so internet users.

Even the government, itself stuck in the pre-digital age, has recently been sounding supportive about e-commerce.

Yet it presides over an ailing economy battered by power cuts, a shrinking currency and a primitive telephone system that rarely works.

Some analysts are sceptical about whether, given its severe economic problems, Kenya is really ready to embrace high-tech capitalism.

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