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A master plan for the future of Colombia’s ICT sector

Interview - September 21, 2015

Business & Investment sits down with David Luna Sánchez, Minister of Information and Communications Technologies of Colombia, examining the difficulties and potential achievements for the Colombian ICT sector.


We are facing a complex global situation; with some studies predicting a huge drop in the FDI in the country, although President Santos has stated that this is just a cloudy moment. Not long ago, Bloomberg named the Colombian economy one of the 15 most miserable in the world, while The Daily Telegraph has mentioned that it is one of the strongest in the region. Apparently it all depends on the eye of the beholder. What is your current assessment of the Colombian economy?

It is true that we are going through difficult times, but the economy is ready to face them. During the last few years, President Santos has decided to use the income that the country obtained from commodities, especially oil, for socioeconomic measures, infrastructure, education, agriculture, and also technology. But the Colombian economy doesn't only depend on commodities. We export services, we add value in terms of land, and once the peace treaty is signed I am sure we will be one of the most important countries in the tourism industry. There are so many things we must communicate to the rest of the world. We've been able to position our economy as a market that has legal certainty. The investors feel comfortable here, because the rules of the game are reliable. Our human capital is trained, experienced, has a good level in foreign languages. There is a perfect balance between what the investors need and what the country needs.

For 2017, Colombia is expected to enter the OECD. Finance Minister Mauricio Cárdenas told us that Colombia is a very open country and that it complies with the international standards of this “club of best practices”. How do you think Colombia would benefit from this Organization?

Colombia is classified as the leading Latin American country in matters of Open Government and E-Government. These awards are very useful to our goal of entering the OECD. President Santos, right from his first administration, established the goal of being a part of this club of successful countries. We are making the necessary efforts to get the companies to understand that we consider them to be important partners, and notice that we are ready to make all the adjustments that are required. We have received many recommendations and we are responding to them. It is very important for us to take that step and become a member of the OECD.

After more than five decades of armed conflict, 2015 could be a true milestone if the peace treaty is finally signed. What challenges will the government and specifically your Ministry face in the post-conflict era?

All the people in Colombia want a country in peace. A decision was made in order to end the conflict in a peaceful way, and that is why I think that negotiation and dialogue are the right choices. This Ministry will be essential to the peace process and the post-conflict for three reasons. First, because it can reach to where the State hasn't reached yet. President Santos received a country with only 200 connected cities, 2.2 million connections, and 20% connected homes; today, we have 1,078 connected cities, 10 million connections, and almost 50% connected homes. In December 2015, Colombia will be a fully connected country. These advances will be useful for the regions where there is still violence today. Secondly, and regarding education and equality, during the post-conflict we will continue to provide connection to the schools and further technological tools for the younger population, and work on the development of training teachers in the use of ICT. President Santos received a country with 19 children per computer in the public education system, today we have nine children per computer, and we expect to reach two per computer. Finally, the infrastructure is now being directly and indirectly affected by the armed conflict. We need to counteract this situation, we need citizens with better connection and a better quality of service.

What is the role played by the Ministry of ICT in achieving the goal of being the best educated Latin American country for 2025?

We are going in that direction led by the President and the Ministry of Education. We want to communicate the idea that technology is one of the main pillars of education. We're not only aiming at improving connectivity, but also digital literacy. We're focusing on senior citizens and persons with disabilities, because these two groups are the ones with greater difficulties for understanding and handling the new technologies. Besides, already 40,000 young people have been through the program “Redvolución.”

We could define “Vive Digital” as the master plan for the Ministry of ICT. It started in 2010, and four years later, after making the most important technological investment in the history of Colombia, 100% of its goals were accomplished. The new program “Vive Digital 2018” will focus on four strategic pillars: improvement of lifestyle, job creation, support for entrepreneurial activities, and the transformation of cities and regions. Where is this plan heading to under your leadership?

The “Vive Digital” program is a state policy, with great progress made in terms of infrastructure and applications. Now, our duty is to use those accomplishments in the creation of higher education standards and more entrepreneurial activity, and the reduction of the difficulties that the general population has today, for example, regarding bureaucracy. This industry has the ability and the duty to create a greater number of jobs. We must encourage people's talents. Besides, it's very important to understand that Colombia is a country of regions. Not everybody has the same needs. We must coordinate strategies to reach every single region, and attend every need.

Colombia is considered as the largest entrepreneur community in Latin America. This is mostly thanks to the Apps Plan. Recently you stated, “We seek to strengthen a process of social and economic transformation, with a special emphasis on the City-Region with Apps 2.0”, and your goal is to end these four years (2014-2018) with 90,000 benefited entrepreneurs. How do you expect to impact on the different regions? On which pillars will the “Apps 2.0” program be based?

We have the largest entrepreneurial network in Latin America. The challenge is to turn that into actual companies, and that those companies in turn transform into profits for their owners, the country, and all the people in the world. “Apps 2.0” has the chance to discover new talents, to materialize them, and accompany them so they can position themselves in the market. We want this to focus on the different regions of the country. We are working together with these 80,000 entrepreneurs about every demand. We are encouraging them to look at the needs of the citizens and produce based on the everyday problems of the people.

Bearing in mind some of our readers are important decision makers and investors, how does the Ministry promote foreign investment? What investment opportunities would you like to highlight?

We want to open the doors for all the investors and support them. Colombia is a country that made profound decisions to promote the investment in ICT. For example, the country gave tax exemptions to all the groups involved in the creation or promotion of technology. We have the cheapest and best quality computers in the entire continent. The investors can be sure that the rules here are reliable. About the opportunities, we would like the investors to take part in this technological revolution, developing products that will have an impact on people's lives.

How would you describe the competition among telecommunication companies in Colombia?

We have promoted competition. We went from three to nine submarine wires, and from three to ten providing companies. The regulatory authority has taken the right decisions. We have protected the citizens from market concentration, and we have given them a major role in the sector. There is a healthy competition which has allowed users to choose according to service, cost, and quality.

The United States is Colombia’s main strategic and trading partner, and it is also the leading country in terms of technological innovation. In what areas would you like to see a closer relationship between both countries, and the consolidation of a technological alliance?

We are putting an emphasis on the promotion of innovation in science and technology. We need international cooperation so that our researchers can be trained abroad and face the new challenges posed by the swift technological changes happening in our country.

Colombia could become a technology hub. If you look at other Latin American countries competing for that position, like Mexico, Chile, or Brazil, what does Colombia’s human talent have that sets it apart?

Colombia can show the investors that it has talent, work, dedication, and the ability to learn. We are making our best effort in order to train more and better talents. We are also a country of regions, surrounded by two oceans. We have the capacity to answer to the markets from both sides, and reduce costs because of this. This is a competitive advantage. Finally, we have great legal and tax stability. We don't change the rules in the middle of the game. We are a reliable country.

Miami intends to position itself as the second technology hub in the United States and the first Latin American one. Sanket Akerkar, vice president of Microsoft, said, “We look at Miami as a great hub for technology from the Southern U.S. perspective. It's a great destination in and on itself, and then you add that it's a gateway to Latin America.” What synergies can you highlight between Colombia and Miami?

There are several advantages in the relationship between both countries. First of all, the geographical proximity. Also, in Miami there is a huge Hispanic and Colombian community. These are factors that allow us to work more easily in issues like innovation and development. Besides, many of the big companies that have settled in Colombia have their HQs in Miami. This helps us have a continuing relationship and work side by side. We are interested in promoting the interaction between the talents from both countries, to be able to train and develop them both here and there.

When President Santos named you as the new ICT Minister, he mentioned that he chose you because of your “ability to execute”. What plan would you like to “execute” the most before you leave the Ministry?

I committed to President Santos, on one hand, to raise the amount of connections from 11 million to 27 million, and on the other, to make sure that all the people with disabilities in Colombia have access to technology. We want to prove that equality is possible. That is why our 6,000 “Vive Digital” kiosks can be used by all Colombians, regardless of their socioeconomic condition.