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September 29, 2011 / Dan Whipple

Kenya’s virtual internet

Zuku screen shotWhat we have here in Kenya is a sort of virtual internet. It looks like the regular internet—you can click on links and new web pages appear and so forth—but it does not have some of the characteristics that users of western world have become accustomed to.

For instance.

Last December I attended a climate change conference in Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city. The hotel hosting the conference offered online reservations, so I filled out the form and clicked the “register” button at the bottom. After a couple of weeks, though, I hadn’t heard anything. Fearing that my room would not be awaiting me, I called.

No, he said, they had no reservation. Who had I spoken with?

I didn’t speak with anybody, I said. I registered online.

Oh, he said, that doesn’t work. We’ll take your reservation over the phone.

So we made my reservation over the phone and when I got to Kisumu I had room waiting for Dan Weepo—but that’s another issue.

Then about February, our bank’s website proudly announced that we could order new checkbooks electronically. So we did, asking that our checkbooks be delivered to the branch in the central business district. Leave a week’s space before collecting the checks, said the website. Sure, no problem.

So a week later, in the bank we asked for the checks. What checks? they asked.

The ones we ordered online, we said.

Oh, she said, that doesn’t work. You have to come here and ask for the checks.

Okay. We asked for the checks. Another week later we got them.

Then just these past two months, I’ve been trying to solve a continuing problem — finding reliable internet service. One of the providers, Zuku, offered a very high speed broadband setup which they said you could order online. I filled out the online form, made a credit card payment to an online payment system known as Pesa Pal, then waiting for something do happen.

Nothing did. So I called Zuku. They had never heard of me. Who did I talk to when I ordered the connection?

I didn’t talk to anyone I said, I did it online.

Oh, she said, that doesn’t work. That’s only for existing customers.

That’s not what it says on your web site, I said. It clearly states, “Sign up for new internet service.”

So we walked through their web site while still on the phone, each of us clicking the links to see what they brought up and reading the resulting instructions. My interlocutor eventually agreed that in fact they did say that they offered this service online, it’s just that they didn’t. You have to call. Furthermore, they had no way to collect my payment from Pesa Pal.

This, mind you, is from a company that provides broadband internet service.

The Kenya internet does provide a great deal of social networking, however. Since you can’t really order anything online, you have to be social and either show up in person or make a phone call to speak to a live human being.

I’ve long held the Homer Simpson theory of evolution: people do not learn from experience. It’s always nice to have your pet theories proven. The unfortunate part is that it proves it about me. Despite ample evidence that if you want anything done you have deal directly with a human being, I have clung to the illusion that I can do it on Kenya’s (virtual) internet.

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