THREE years ago, John Akach was a filing clerk in Kenya's Ministry of Finance. Last May, he was a key figure in collating the 26,000 items that comprise the 1986-87 national budget. Mr. Akach's rapid career advancement was set in motion by the delivery of five Osborne microcomputers in 1983. The computers, funded by United States Agency for International Development (USAID), were introduced at the instigation of advisers from the Harvard Institute for International Development. The following year, 10 more computers were donated by the California-based Kaypro Corporation.
The switch to computers, initially regarded with suspicion by mid- and top-level bureaucrats, has proved to be so successful that it augurs a radical change of pace for government offices that follow suit. The advisers hope that computers eventually will be adopted throughout the civil service. In other ministries, bureaucrats still laboriously copy out statistics by hand, and files of data are regularly misplaced or lost.
Now acknowledged as an invaluable management tool in strategic planning, the computers have enabled finance officials to rationalize the allocation of scarce national resources and cheered the hearts of the donor agencies that underwrite a large proportion of development projects.
For Africa, where many countries are unable to furnish economic statistics that are less than two and sometimes three years old, the switch is revolutionary. Yet despite the obvious advantages, the concept of using computers met with substantial resistance from both civil servants and politicians.
Computerization is a politically sensitive issue in Kenya, where labor-intensive methods are officially encouraged. The country's 12 percent unemployment rate is exacerbated by an annual population growth rate of 4 percent, the highest in the world. According to government projections, unemployment will be 25 percent or higher by the turn of the century.
The public-relations breakthrough came last year when, for the first time, the budget was computerized. The exercise pushed the 64-K, 8-bit microcomputers to their limits, and elicited praise from impressed officials. More important, it effectively demonstrated that computerization did not cost jobs. Instead, government employees' productivity had been expanded.
The Finance Ministry hired a consultant to write the programs for the budget. After that, the operation was carried out in-house. Computer printouts of the budget were printed and bound in two weeks, a startling achievement when measured against the yardstick of previous experience.
It was not unusual for budgets, prepared and typeset by hand, to be ready only hours before being presented to a packed Parliament. Often, printed copies of the finance minister's budget speech were unavailable for circulation despite ministry employees' efforts. On one occasion, delivery of the budget had to be postponed several days when printing fell behind schedule.
Another key project implemented last year by the finance ministry was an ambitious review of individual ministerial spending, with the objective of pruning capital outlay on development. It was completed by Akach and a secretary in three days. Such an exercise, attempted with hand calculators and typewriters (the method still adhered to by most other ministries), would have required months to put together.
At the outset, staffing presented a problem. The Ministry was unable to attract computer managers at the $300 salary that was being offered. Managerial skills are scarce in Kenya. Private companies pay two or three times more than the government pays for equivalent posts.
``The crux of computerization in Kenya is not finding the right hardware, but having the right people to run it,'' explained Dr. Clay Wescott, the Harvard adviser responsible for implementing the program.
There was also an image problem. Middle level and senior bureaucrats were reluctant to learn about computers because working at a keyboard is regarded as a menial job. Undaunted, the ministry turned to typists and clerks such as Akach to operate the machines. The microcomputers were so simple to work that workers had no problem learning how to use them.
A-level (high school) graduates were employed to train the clerks and secretaries and to write programs. About 20 percent of the workload was hired out to consultants, who are graduates of the University of Nairobi.
``Our secretaries are much more productive than anyone in the private sector we farmed out to,'' said Wescott. ``And now their bosses are peering over their shoulders and taking an interest in what they are doing.''
Within a few weeks, Ministry personnel were producing five-year district development plans and weekly budget reports, as well as monitoring projects financed by donors such as USAID.
During the 1984 drought, when crops withered and left thousands of people starving, the ministry resorted to its microcomputers to cope with the nationwide disaster. Programmers developed models to estimate imported food requirements for each district, to draw up schedules for unloading ships and transporting food to depots, and to assess the financial implications of domestic grain shortfalls.
Now other ministries have begun to use computers to analyze their budgets. In the past, Kenya's 28 ministries have used their money erratically, under- or overspending. This was hardly surprising: Individual ministerial budgets were restricted to two typewritten copies -- one lodged with the permanent secretary (the most senior civil servant in a ministry) and the other retained by the Ministry of Finance. But ministries that have computerized are able to circulate the budget to all their personnel, enabling civil servants to practice more effective management.