Anyone who knows Kenya knows it is famous for tea. And while I can now get Kenyan tea online from US companies like Starbucks, Caribou Coffee or any number of other re-sellers, like most consumers I would vastly prefer to cut out the middle man and buy my tea direct from Kenyan companies. Why not?
But here's the rub. Besides me and a significant number of Brits, who buys Kenyan tea? According to Kenya's Department of Agriculture, after the UK the three largest buyers of Kenyan tea are Egypt, Pakistan, and Sudan. In fact, the Arabic speaking Middle East accounts for about 25% of world tea purchases.
To reach these customers directly, Kenyan tea producers really need the ability to "speak their language" on the web—to provide websites and web addresses that are all in Arabic or Urdu. However, since today's internet doesn't allow website names in anything but Roman characters after the dot, we've got to wait for ICANN to enable these Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs).
Monday night here in Seoul ICANN held a reception to celebrate the coming of IDNs for country code domains (like .eg for Egypt). It was a love fest, complete with cocktails, slide shows and commemorative t-shirts. And it's true, ICANN should be complimented for this advance—however belated.
Still, as I sat there talking with delegates from Kenya I was struck by just how limited a victory this will be—and what a missed opportunity it is—for existing and potential e-businesses. Even to reach their best Arabic-speaking markets with an all-Arabic website, no Kenyan company is likely to go through the trouble and expense of buying IDN domains in more than 20 Arabic-speaking countries.
So where does that leave the Kenyan tea industry? If I were the Kenya Tea Development Agency, Ltd I would want to keep it simple. What I would really want is the Arabic version of the website I already have—www.ktdateas.com.
In the end the issue of IDNs shouldn't be about linguistics or politics, but about economic growth and development, about making the Internet more accessible for the billions of new users and businesses coming online every day. Now that ICANN has committed to make IDN ccTLDs available, why not make the most common existing TLDs—like .com and.org—next in line?
If, as the proverb goes, "tea is liquid wisdom" then ICANN should have a cup or two… then get about the business of bringing global TLDs to the IDN space.