Monica’s cyber in the small town of Maai Mahiu, a market for a primarily rural area, is now the only such facility available. There was another cyber on the other side of the main highway, she said, but it closed within its first year of operation. Internet access in this locale is available only through 3G and its a poor signal with spotty data performance. JamFram Cyber Cafe offers the town its only source of business support services – photocopy, lamination, binding, secretarial services as well as 6 desktop computers networked on a 3G router. When we were there, the electricity was out across the town and she was happy to talk while waiting for the lights to come back. In the half hour we were there, only two customers walked in – one asking for a photocopy, the other to check on his documents given for typing. The cyber business was slow though she’d noted that mobile requests were increasing – the local phone dealer sending new owners of data enabled phones down to her to help them set up an email account and a Facebook page as well as the settings to permit browsing.
So why would the townspeople call her when she took a slightly longer Christmas holiday earlier this year, making her cut short her intended holiday until the middle of January and return to open shop by the 3rd? Why were they concerned that she might have decided to shut shop like the other cyber which gave up after 5 or 6 months? We were left with the impression that the townspeople would support her business bureau’s continued existence than lose access to her range of services.
We found that the cyber cafe has a role to play in the local community beyond the simple service of walk in to browse the internet. Broadly the roles can be clustered under these main categories:
The cyber as intermediary across the digital divide (ICT)
In people’s minds, ‘Internet’ was associated with the cyber cafe. We heard this over and over from cyber cafe staff that various telco dealers would send across customers facing challenges with the setup of their data enabled phone over to the cyber for help. Or after making the purchase of an internet enabled phone, people would come over to the cyber first – since you cannot set up an email account then make a Facebook page without a computer. Even someone like Jacqueline in Kagumo who was working at the local phone dealer and was saving up for her own laptop and browsed primarily through her phone had to visit the cyber first.
In Malindi, a significant proportion of Salmatech’s customers were the beachboys whom market forces (their international tourist clientele) were forcing onto the internet via email, Skype and Facebook. Necessity drove them to learn how to use the basics of the computer enough so that they could respond to inquiries, communicate and make bookings in advance of the high season – this was critical enough that they would often trade off topping up airtime minutes on their mobiles in order to have money for the cyber’s minutes of use. Here, the cyber was the go to place, even if some of them already owned laptops gifted by tourist friends, to learn and be informed about the hardware, the software and critically, the utility of the internet.
Most cybers offered customers the Kenyan Revenue Authority (KRA) online services for a fee – the facility to get PINs and submit VAT returns online being one of the first egovernment services rolled out nationally. Other such services offered were US Greencard lottery applications, visa application services, registrations for national examinations, even bus ticket bookings when offered online.
But the mediation was not simply between the customer and the internet. Cyber cafes whose operators had a technical background also tended to be full of spare parts and supplies, many offering maintenance and support for hardware in addition to basic services like virus removal, software updates and configuration.
We also found some cybers, particularly those with fixed unlimited access (such via WiMax or DSL), acting as micro ISPs – running cables out to their neighbours for a fixed monthly rate (usually much lower than what the service cost) in order to mitigate the risk of being unable to cover the cost since incomes were otherwise irregular and often unpredictable. But this behaviour, imho, has less to do with their role as an intermediary – though in fact that is what it could said to be – and more to do with coping mechanisms to help manage expenses on volatile cash flows.
The cyber as a training ground
Whether its formal classes offered in basics of computer use or simply the help received from a friendly generous cyber cafe staff or owner, the cyber is most often where learning and practice both online and on the computer takes place.
The cyber as a social place
Primarily seen in locations where there were many young college students, the cyber seems to have become the local hangout. Boy and girls were seen waiting outside for their turn at email or Facebook, chatting with friends, relaxing and mingling with no hurry to get anywhere or do anything in particular. One newish cyber in Kilifi even had an ice cream parlour with cozy tables and chairs in the front half of the spacious store, all decorated in bright colours and visuals.
The cyber as a business bureau
The majority of cybers tend to offer at minimum printing services along with scanning and photocopying depending on their choice of equipment. Most however offer lamination, binding, a variety of typing and basic typesetting services as well. Photo printing, passport photos and mPesa or airtime sales can also be added to increase sources of income but the basic concept of support services tend to default to the local cyber. This role perhaps explains why Monica’s clients were concerned enough to encourage her return to work even if browsing the internet may not have always been their choice of service.
Typesetting or typing services have expanded to include helping students with their research online in some cases, and in places where the internet was not a popular enough service, this facility offered the opportunity to develop a regular clientele of small businesses, local government offices and students to sustain the business.