The name Robert Alai sends shivers down the spine of those who are engaging in unscrupulous deals. This is because Alai does not shy from exposing individuals or corporate entities doing a disservice to the nation. As a result, he has earned himself friends and foes in equal measure but this does not deter him from doing what he opines is right: being the voice of the voiceless. The blogger, Internet entrepreneur and social activist had a no-holds-barred interview with LILY RONOH.
When you mention the word activism, images of people carrying placards, stones and twigs shouting themselves hoarse come to mind. But that was before the advent of social media. Today, the battleground has shifted to social networking tools and platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube where activists broadcast their messages as well as hold candid discussions. Over the years, cyber activism in Kenya, as with the rest of the world, has grown exponentially. It is here that Robert Alai has made a name for himself as he champions for the cause of the voiceless and those too timid to rub the high and mighty the wrong way.
And Alai stands tall, both figuratively and literally. Standing over six feet four inches tall, the blogger walks around with an aura of confidence. He is a risk-taker and this is evident from his posts especially when he is delivering a scathing attack on individuals he deems corrupt or perpetrating injustice of one form or another. It is these attacks that have landed him in court more than once and a brief stint behind bars. Oh, and he doesn’t mince his words. According to him, corruption and injustice have no euphemism.
During the September 21, 2013 Westgate Attack, Alai earned both local and international praise as he delivered timely and most informed updates on Twitter about what was happening at the mall. So who is this man Robert Alai Onyango?
“I am a Kenyan who believes everyone has a right to be heard. I abhor injustice and I cannot sit while I see the marginalised being taken advantage of. I use social media platforms to expose the unfairness in our country. Once an injustice comes to light, it takes a life of its own as the people call for justice. I am thus the voice of the voiceless,” explains the 38-year-old.
The big break…
Born and bred in Nyando, Kisumu County, the son of a former assistant education officer (now deceased) grew up in a polygamous family. Being an education officer, his father was very particular about education and was very intentional about how his children performed in school and whom they interacted with. Alai thus received his education at Boya and Onjiko Primary School before proceeding to Onjiko Boys High School but later transferred to the day school Lela Secondary School in Kisumu County where he sat for Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education in 1998.
Robert Alai, his wife Beverly Madowo and their daughter Yucabeth
In 2000, Alai moved to Nairobi to make a life for himself. Apart from his family, relatives and friends, no one really knew him. And when he joined Africa Virtual University (AVU) in Kenyatta University to study information technology, he was a nondescript boy from Nyanza Province. Afterwards, he enrolled at the Kenya School of Monetary Studies for a diploma in Information Management System.
“After completing these courses, jobs weren’t forthcoming. Life was hard. I had just finished my internship at the then Telkom Kenya (now Orange Kenya) as a helpdesk specialist. I used to stay in Pumwani Highrise in California Estate, Nairobi County, and when I couldn’t take the lack of job opportunities anymore, I moved to Tanzania where a friend had intimated I could find work. It was while I was in Tanzania that I landed a job with the United Nations Mission in Congo (then called MONUC) as a logistics officer, but the offices were based in Kigoma, Tanzania,” he recalls his big break in employment.
Discovering the power of the Internet…
At the UN, Alai quickly made acquaintances. He was a prominent member of the Kenyans working with the UN and famously called “Kenyan Mafia” for being so united in facing their challenges. Life in the UN missions being boring (home-work-home), he spent most of his off-work time taking online courses or engaging friends online. He realised that he was getting lots of job advertisements in his email address while not so interested in most of them. Furthermore, there were many youth seeking jobs but did not know where to start the search.
Back then, there were very limited ways of passing information to a mass of people at once and what was available was the mailing list (famously called listservs). Alai thus started a mailing list for job opportunities and many people subscribed to it. Soon, the mailing list became more than a platform where jobseekers could find jobs as members used it to discuss pertinent issues affecting Kenya, with politics being the centre of interest. Within no time, he became a person of interest as he candidly and fearlessly criticised politicians, government aficionados and business leaders who were practicing underhand deals.
“I have always been passionate about justice. This is a seed planted in me by my father who always insisted that I do good and be good to everyone. The mailing list gave me and other people, especially those who were in the diaspora, a platform to discuss and critic our country of course with an aim of bringing change. I later registered the mailing list as Kazi Africa and sold it,” he explains his flirtation with cyber activism.
His contract with the UN ended in 2007 and he returned to Kenya as the country was preparing for the general election. But he was a different man from the naive man who had gone to Tanzania a few years earlier in search of greener pastures. He had experienced the power of the mailing list and armed with this knowledge, he knew where he was going to get his bread and butter from: online. By then, the Internet was still a fairly new phenomenon and many people were not acquainted with it.
Through the mailing list, he had already established himself as a force to reckon with and thus when he started another mailing list in 2008, Bidii Africa, it proved to be even more successful with more than 40,000 subscribing to it. It was also around this time that Kenya was going through post-election violence and Alai took advantage of his online presence to inform those in the diaspora about what was happening in the country.
“I was staying in Ngummo’s Magiwa’s estate during the elections. While there, I witnessed someone carrying a dead person’s head on the tip of a panga. I knew I had to do more than just informing people about the violence. By then, I had amassed quite a following and I reached out to them to help me get people out of hot spots. It was a success and we were able to hire buses that would transport people from the trouble spots to safer locations. Dr Hezron McObewa and Dr Joshua Oron were so instrumental in this. I will forever remember their contribution to help save lives. We partnered with Kenya Red Cross and got some policemen who helped in safeguarding the internally displaced persons as they were being relocated,” he recounts.
To those who had grasped the power of the Internet, it provided a host of opportunities and Alai, not one to let an opportunity pass him, embraced it with both hands. He registered an online company, Kazi Africa Limited after Bidii Africa was unceremoniously shut down. Kazi Africa Limited was a human resource company that linked job seekers with employers. So successful was it that an investor approached him with an offer to buy it. The deal was just too good for Alai to resist.
He started another online company, My African Career and with his Midas touch, the company picked up quickly. Unlike his earlier ventures, this one was strictly a career site. He would wake up at 3am to buy newspapers and rummage for job advertisements, which he would update on the site. The site had a lot of traffic and it wasn’t long before advertisers came calling. Again, an investor approached him and he sold it.
“That’s when I started Techmtaa, a blog where I review new technology. I also use it to offer IT consultancy as well as social media marketing,” he says.
A family man…
Alai is mostly a home person. Having lost two of his close family members to alcohol, he rarely goes out to drink as is common with many of his peers. But he loves enjoying time with his family while also following the happenings around the world keenly from his living room. But what inspires him to put his life on the line even for people he does not know?
“As I mentioned earlier, I am a lover of justice. What I do is a calling that even I can’t stop if I wanted to. Through the mailing list, I got contacts of many people and I still keep in touch with them. It is these networks that give me information and once it is verified, I inform Kenyans as they have a right to know what their leaders are doing. I am serving the nation by asking questions people are afraid to ask and by exposing corrupt individuals. I have also been involved in championing for noble causes such as Kenyans for Kenya. And just to set the record straight, no one pays me to do what I do; I do it because if I don’t do it, who will?” he explains.
Alai is married to a special education champion, Beverly Madowo. Beverly is a teacher who focusses on helping children with special needs. She is also a fitness enthusiast. Together they have been blessed with an adorable daughter.