The only other cybers we’d seen this packed till now had been those in Nakuru – a veritable boom town for the industry- since in the past 5 years, the numbers had grown from 10 cybers to the current 77 not including the ones in the process of opening. Focus Cyber in Wote, in an entirely different province on the other side of the country was the largest among the 5 or 6 cafes in this town among a mostly rural area thats more economically challenged than the other places we’ve seen.
Alex the manager mused upon the future of his business – it actually struck him during the course of our conversation that the boom had begun suddenly in late 2009, gone on for a while and he felt that it had begun to taper out earlier this year around April or May. In fact, he conjectured, would next year be as good as this one and was the boom period over the business?
This observation inspired us to take a closer look at Wote’s ‘cyber boom’ aka the growth phase on the industry growth curve – here, it was less to do with increasing numbers of cybers the way it was in Nakuru. The push towards increasing use in internet – Alex’s cyber had been the first in town, opening its doors back in 2007 – had been impelled the increasing digitization of Kenya’s institutions – both government offices as well as educational institutions. A recent spike in business seen by cybers in Wote (we’d also visited another location in town) was in September, just before the national examinations. Now that examination registration for high school students could only be done online (just like KRA pins and VAT submissions) even teachers were coming into town from remote rural locations to register their students. The town itself had seen parents, students and teachers – the educational system as a whole – go online for a variety of reasons such as exam prep, registration and research, during this period.
Now though there was directive from on high that all schools were to obtain their own computers and this factor was what made Alex ponder the future of his cyber traffic. In a very different way from the urban digital plateau and decline seen by the industry in Nairobi, Wote was reaching a saturation point in that anyone who wanted to go online was already going online and there were enough cybers to support the existing business.
In way this could be said to be an inflection point for internet awareness in this region – Elizabeth from the other cyber cafe felt strongly that mobiles were not at all having an impact on their business. Her rationale was that customers found going online with the phone too expensive, approximately 4 Ksh a minute versus the 1 Ksh a minute that was standard in Wote. Only those who came in to town from remote locations were using the phone to browse – they’d stop by the town’s cyber to set up all their browsing needs.
Neither cyber cafe had observed any increase in ownership of personal computers or other devices. The computer and the internet seemed to have found its place in the community, allowing cyber cafes to continue their roles as intermediaries across the digital divide as well as business bureaus and office support services.