Few people, not even computer experts themselves, can scale the terrains of technological changes with the zeal of Dr Silvanus Juma Okech, the ICT secretary at the Office of the President who died on January 30, 2009.
A pioneer computer guru described by President Kibaki as “a dedicated academician and an illustrious civil servant”, the road to success for Dr Juma entailed managing more than the changing faces of machines.
To begin with, the computer engineer and programmer fondly referred to as Juma by industry colleagues because of his self-evasive simplicity, had aspired to studying mechanical engineering and not computers.
He earned a Canadian scholarship in 1978 to study technical education after scoring straight As in Form Six at Mombasa Polytechnic.
Since it was the Kenyan authorities that decided the areas of study for the beneficiaries of the scholarship, Juma had to content himself with a teaching course.
In those days, the Government was not keen to train mechanical and computer engineers because it was believed that they would later leave for greener pastures in the private sector.
JUMA AND A SCORE OF OTHER YOUNG KENYANS on the same programme returned to the country to teach. At Kenya Teachers Technical Training College (KTTC), Juma toyed with some of the first personal computers.
In those days the concept of a computer was the huge mainframe, owned by organisations and used to process salaries and other serious mathematical functions. Computers had not been “personalised” into desktop PCs, laptops or the palm-held devices.
When the craving for computers could not be mollified by the stint at KTTC, Juma registered for a postgraduate course in computer science at the Nairobi University.
In 1998, he got another scholarship to do a masters programme in computer science and later a doctorate degree. Although he still returned to teaching three years later, he teamed up with other ICT experts and made defining contributions to the ICT industry in Kenya.
With James Rege (now Karachuonyo MP), Shem Ochuodo and Sammy Buratara of Nairobinet and others, he worked for the coming of the internet in the early 1990s.
MR REGE THINKS BILL GATES MADE A DEBUT in the digital world when the Kenyan experts were already making great strides by sending messages over copper wirelines on a point-to-point basis using modems.
In the late 90s, Juma served as one of the founding members of the USAid-funded Kenya Education Network that sought to enhance internet access in the education sector.
In August 2000, he left teaching and joined government service as part of the “Dream Team” that was sought from the private sector to inject professionalism in the public sector.
When his contract could not be renewed two years later, he left for the Rwanda Information Technology Authority where, with President Kagame’s goodwill, he worked for a system that allowed the cabinet to communicate and do business with laptops and the internet.
But Juma was to come back in 2004 to head the directorate of e-government. He was also instrumental in the development of a system that allows citizens to apply for Public Service Commission jobs online.
He provided the much needed e-leadership in the public sector by setting the standards for government employees working on e-government projects.
Shortly before he succumbed to cancer, Juma, whom we could call the father of diffusion of ICT in government, was upbeat about the coming of e-transaction legislation which allows the growth of e-life in Kenya.