Kenya’s Keyboard Warriors

Posted on April 6, 2012


* Article originally appeared in the East African Business Times

Kenyans are increasingly taking to social media to report bad service and behaviour by companies, publicising misdeeds and forcing organisations to account for failings or risk serious damage to their reputations.

After claiming discrimination against him by a Diani hotel having been refused entry to pick up clients, Duncan Muriuki took to Twitter and Facebook to demand people name and shame those that discriminate against them. Thousands of Kenyans have also taken to the TwitterBigStick campaign to post complaints about bad service, coming hot on the heels of the launch of the I Paid A Bribe website at the end of last year.

Social media is increasingly being used by Kenyans in order to hold companies and officialdom to account. A recent report placed Kenyans as the second top users of Twitter on the continent, with 2.48 million tweets during the last three months of 2011, while the site is fast becoming an important news source for Africa, particularly amongst the 20-29 age group. By January this year, according to the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK), Kenya had 14.3 million internet users, a 14 per cent increase from the 12.5 million users in the previous quarter and a 65 per cent increase from the year before. Companies have been forced to respond to complaints raised on Twitter from this growing online community in order to protect their reputations, while the Ethics and Anti-Corruption commission has welcomed the advent of I Paid A Bribe.

Muriuki, who is the managing director of Destination Africa Limited, is now suing the Baobab Beach Resort in Diani for discrimination after claiming he was denied entry to collect clients in February. The hotel denies this, and says he was denied entry for security reasons. “I cannot believe that in this day and age, some beach hotels at the Kenyan coast will not allow locals to enjoy the services they advertise,” said Muriuki. “As a former chairman of Kato (Kenya Association of Tour Operators) I fought against this issue for years and I thought it was over. I am sad that some hotels still discriminate against people based on colour,” said Mr Muriuki. He took to Twitter and Facebook to express his views, setting up a Twitter account especially and created a Facebook. The page now has more than 1,000 members, with members telling their own stories of discrimination. The success of Muriuki’s online campaign prompted the story to feature in the national news, drawing unwanted attention to the Baobab resort and surely harming their brand.

“I took to Facebook after writing to the hotel in vain and when I tried getting the manager’s number whilst still at the gate, the reception staff would not give it to me,” he said. “So I raised the issue on Trip Advisor, on Facebook and posted the video footage of the incident on YouTube for people to see what happened. I opened a page called ‘Name and Shame!! Say no to discrimination’ to create awareness to this vice and give people a forum to speak about it and deter future incidents on the basis that no hotel or restaurant wants to be the subject of discussion and calls for boycott.”

“I felt Facebook, YouTube and Twitter because of their wide reach locally and internationally and is cost effective,” he added. “[Social media] can play a big role in creating awareness and many people are on social media on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. It makes people aware so they can demand their rights. Secondly it makes the establishment realise that they will be exposed, shamed and named which translates into a huge loss of business and bad publicity. Nobody needs bad publicity.” The campaign forced the hotel to issue him with a written apology but Muriuki is still pursuing legal action.

Muriuki’s campaign is not the only one on social media where businesses are being held to account. So many Twitter users have become involved with the TwitterBigStick campaign that companies have seen no other option but to respond to complaints using the hashtag. Any posts that do not provoke a response can be ‘re-tweeted’ many times. Kenyan companies including Kenya Power, Kenya Railways and Safaricom have already responded to complaints about their service via TwitterBigStick, while even the United Nations and the British High Commission in Kenya have responded to issues and promised to address any problems. The push, primarily driven by management consultant and writer Sunny Bindra, is also being supported on a daily basis by social media users and journalists as well as some CEOs. Mr Bindra has written a book on customer care in action and is hoping for organisations within Kenya to become more efficient. He argues that the movement represents real democracy.

“TwitterBigStick is a crowd-sourced initiative that is run and governed by the crowd,” he says. “It tries to stay entirely neutral and has no vested interests whatsoever. It has been initiated for the general good, because ordinary people are fed up of neglect and of being taken for granted as customers and users.”

“It is for the collective to decide what is credible and what is not, and what complaints to support by replying, mentioning or re-tweeting. There is no central authority of any sort.”

Though the hashtag is aimed at organisations with brands to manage and reputations to protect, the power of Twitter to hold even senior political and military figures to account was recently demonstrated when Kenyan military spokesman Major Chirchir tweeted old photographs for what he claimed was a recent stoning incident in Somalia. Once Twitter users realised this, the Kenyan military was forced to release a statement stating that “the incident gives us an opportunity to improve on our public information dissemination mechanism.”

Other branches of officialdom are being put under pressure by internet users in Kenya. I Paid A Bribe, set up at the end of last year by social entrepreneur Anthony Ragui and based on a similar model in India, has had 543 anonymous reports of petty bribery so far totalling more than Sh14 million. Soliciting of bribes is common in Kenya, and Ragui’s goal is to draw attention to it through the internet and persuade the authorities to crack down on it. He says the aim is to get Kenyans to talk about corruption. “When it comes to small, little issues, nobody talks about those small things,” he says. “Petty bribery actually affects our country more than large corruption. I’m trying to get Kenyans to talk openly about it.”

Ragui says he will use the data provided by the site to do an analysis, which will then be provided to government departments. Kenya’s Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, which Ragui hopes to work closely with, says it would welcome the information gathered. “The fight against corruption calls for concerted efforts from everyone,” said spokesman Nicholas Simani. “This kind of initiative is something that would be most welcomed but it is important the information is carefully analysed. It is a noble initiative.”

I Paid A Bribe is designed to form a community where people can learn from each others’ experiences. “We want to have a way that people can share their experiences and show that it is possible to say no,” said Ragui. “Kenyans are always online, on Facebook, Twitter, whatever. We can create a movement to report on corruption. Kenyans are really, really tired of this.” Kenya ranked 154th out of 182 nations by anti-corruption campaigners Transparency International, with the police, the Ministry of Defence and Nairobi City Council ranked as the three most corrupt institutions in Kenya. Ragui’s hope is that the power of the internet can be used to harness corruption and help the country move forward.

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