The consensus seems to be that dealing with corruption is one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome when trying to change policy. Witaba endeavours to impact ICT, e-governance and data protection policies in Kenya. And does corruption get in the way? Witaba shrugs. “Kenyans are woke. We know what’s going on.”
Witaba’s policy influence works in two ways. Firstly, he works directly to influence policy as an associate of KICTAnet, a multi-stakeholder platform for those interested and involved in ICT policy and regulation. Secondly, through his NGO, the Centre for Youth Empowerment and Leadership, and through educational programmes like the Arusha Women’s School of Internet Governance and the Tanzanian School of Internet Governance, he empowers women, youth and SMEs with the skills and knowledge to engage in ICT policy advocacy themselves. He believes that someday they will become the next generation of internet governance leaders.
In 2016, a Kenyan Minister proposed a new bill that would regulate and licence all those working in the field of ICT. There had been no consultation with any of the stakeholders. The bill would make it illegal for all those who did not have a Bachelor of Science in ICT or a related field and who did not have three years of prior experience, to work in the field of ICT.
The ICT Practitioner’s Bill was contentious for many reasons. First, it would have the immediate effect of stifling innovation.
“What if Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates were born in Kenya?” Witaba illustrates. “If this bill was passed, they would never have gone on to create Facebook or Microsoft. They were both college dropouts.”
Second, it would create an elite pool of handpicked ICT practitioners who may have been in cahoots with the Minister.
Kenyan techies and the general public took to their twitter handles. Soon, the hashtag #killtheICTbillKE was trending. One of KICTAnet’s founders, current cabinet minister for the ICT ministry and ex Google CEO for Africa spoke to the President who did not sign the bill. Through effective policy lobbying, the bill was shelved to allow time for the public to comment, as per the due process. KICTAnet was able to submit their comments for the proposed bill, and Witaba as a KICTAnet associate was able to play a part in shelving the bill.
Witaba stumbled into ICT by chance. He grew up in what he calls a “typical African setting” in the small village of Lubao. As with most Kenyan children in his village, his parents worked in the city while he and his siblings were raised by his grandmother. He completed his schooling and left Lubao for Nairobi, looking forward to starting a Bachelor’s in Management Information Systems at the university. But this was not to be, as the government discontinued the course as too few students were interested. An alternative was offered – a brand new subject with a new curriculum: ICT. Witaba jumped at the opportunity.
As an undergraduate student returning to his hometown of Lubao on breaks from university, Witaba gave motivational speeches at schools in his village about the importance of perseverance and about ICT. Children in his village looked to him for inspiration. In 2006, Witaba established Centre for Youth Empowerment and Leadership (CYEL). The agenda was “bring technology closer to the Youth who need it in order to move towards a just and sustainable society , and to bridge the digital divide gap”.
In 2009, Witaba formally registered the organisation so he could apply for a grant from the UN. He was unable to secure the grant from the UN but having registered his NGO meant he could apply for a grant from GIZ for their ICT@innovation programme, which he did receive.
Years later, Witaba’s colleague from the GIZ ICT@innovation programme, who was a lecturer at the University of Dodoma in Tanzania, asked him to come to Tanzania to speak to his students about e-governance and ICT policy. So Witaba, with his own money, took a bus to Tanzania where he was given a podium to speak about e-governance for half a day. At the time, they didn’t have any money for refreshments for the participants. But the students asked for more. They wanted another event and they wanted to pay for their certification.
What started as a half day event with no funding is now a 3-day event sponsored by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and its members. It not only provides an e-governance certification for the students but also the all-important refreshments that Witaba mentioned were missing from the first event.
But Witaba didn’t stop there. After all, why limit this knowledge to students? He partnered with one of his peers, the founder of TechChicks, to start the Arusha Women’s School of Internet Governance in 2018, which is held once a year in April. From there started the Tanzanian School of Internet Governance, open to all, also held once a year in July.
Witaba’s story is one of true perseverance and a little bit of chance. He is constantly looking to take the next step, no matter how small. For Witaba, life, and policy, is about compromise. It is about the win-win situation.
“What am I willing to lose so I can gain? We must keep walking. And if we can’t walk, then we must crawl. Life goes on.”
Words by Upeksha Hettiarachchi