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Uganda’s ICT Revolution

Interview - June 16, 2014
The growing contribution of ICT to agriculture, climate change adaptation, education, financial services, Government Services and Health is being explored while the role of ICT is also enhancing African regional trade and integration, boosting innovation, creating jobs and boosting the export potential of African companies. United World talks to Uganda’s Minister of State of ICT, Hon. Nyombi Thembo
Comment on how important is ICT for the further socioeconomic development of Uganda and the current situation of the sector.

The Uganda Posts and Telecommunication Corporation (UPTC) were both the operator and the regulator of the sector, until 1998, when the liberalization of the Ugandan ICT split the company into 4 companies.

The Posta Uganda Ltd. (PUL) is now known as Uganda Post Ltd. (UPL), as a result of an extensive restructuring extensive restructuring exercise that concluded this year. We have licensed several operators to make this sector competitive.

The Uganda Telecom Company (UTC) is the first national operator, and the government still holds 31% of its shares. UTC was privatized in 2000 after UCOM acquired 51% of its shares. UCOM is a consortium formed by Germany's Detecon, Switzerland's Telecel International and Egypt's Orascom Telecom (of course, Orascom sold its shares to UCOM in 2002/03).

The Post Bank Uganda Ltd. (PBU) was initially incorporated to take over Post Office Savings Bank (POSB). The government of Uganda wholly owns it. It aims to be the leading banking institution to cater to the masses.

The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), on the other hand, functions as the industry regulator.

Later on, we saw the need to license a 2nd national operator that was supposed to compete with UTL. We then had CelTel Uganda (which changed to Zain to AirTel) followed by MTN. They revolutionized the country’s communications industry. From then on, we started licensing other operators (so far we have about 6 in the com sector).

And the Media Industry?

Yes, we have more than 200 FM stations in the broadcasting sector, and more than 20 TV companies.

How would you assess the competition in the industry?

The competition is very good. The prices have come down considerably. That’s why the telecoms sector is the fastest-growing sector within the Ugandan economy.

We can see that communications is actually transforming our country. Tax contribution is close to about UShs400 billion (over US$150 million). The industry employs more than a million people (directly and indirectly). It is truly the prime mover of the economy, and we are happy to be part of that revolution.

For how long have you been contributing to this ICT revolution?

I have been here for the last 3 to 4 years, so I am happy to be a part of that revolution.

How is the Ministry working to promote an investor-friendly environment?

Right from the get-go, we chose a path where we think the government should do 3 things. First, we have to act as enablers and ensure that we have policies that are investor-friendly so that we get more capital coming into the sector.

Secondly, we should act as facilitators by promoting a relevant legal framework that supports the investments, setting up the necessary infrastructure.

Thirdly, we should function as regulators for the sector to manage the competition. Of course, when one regulates, one needs to be very careful. We have to organize the competition to avoid falling into chaos. We should not overdo it, either, because the last thing that we want is to suffocate the sector.

How successful have you been in accomplishing these 3 tasks?

So far, I think we have been able to walk that knife’s edge. We make sure that we regulate the sector for growth. We have functional regulation that promotes healthy competition, and to make the government’s direction clear.

How would you describe the country's penetration rate, given its population of 36.82 million (as per the World Population Prospects Report of the United Nations Department of Social Affairs or UN-DSA)?

As of 2014, we have about 19 million telephone lines. It should be significantly more than that. However, this does open up an avenue for investment in the sector.

Internet penetration is approaching 22%. Its low rate presents an opportunity for investors to come in, especially when you consider the size and demographic of the population of the country (with more than 65% below the age of 15). This creates a huge potential for future demand.

What is the main gap in the sector?

The main gap in the sector is data uptake. The current operators have tried as much as they could to roll out 3G. However, only 50% of the urban areas in the country would want to see 3G rolled out throughout the country (in the same manner that we have 2G). When companies come to invest exclusively for data, there are still a lot of opportunities in this area.

What are your plans for 4G?

We know very well that we need to roll out 4G, but that cannot happen if we do not roll out fiber.

What is the status of your fiber optic network?

Our country is about 220 square miles. The government has rolled out about 3,000 kilometers and the private sector has rolled out about 5,000 kilometers.

This leaves a huge room for new investments.

Yes, companies interested in rolling out fiber in virgin areas are certainly welcome. We can support them through applying relevant laws and policies. All the other operators can drive on their network. They can make a lot of money out of this.

This is good news, especially with the increasing importance of data intake/uptake.

Yes, that is where the future is heading.
How is the Ministry helping the various sectors of the economy through the implementation of pertinent regulations and policies for ICT?

We believe in the e-Government strategy. We think that technology should be the driver of these sectors. (Particularly when you talk about things like agriculture, health and education).

For instance, under the Rural Communications Development Fund (RCDF), we have given computer labs to every public secondary school in this country. Of course, we have more private secondary schools than government-run ones, but we have helped the private sector create a blueprint of what they need to do to set up computer labs in their schools.

We are not just helping them with their computer labs, we are also connecting them to the Internet. So far, we have managed to connect 50% of the schools to the Internet.

We have also given them content—specifically, science content. This has completely revolutionized the instruction of science in our secondary schools. We have connected about 350 secondary schools in the country—including rural schools. We provide the data for the teaching of mathematics, biology, chemistry, and so on. This technology allows the students to access a virtual lab and explore various educational content to supplement (if not expand) their current curriculum. The project has been so good that students from rural schools are now competing with the urban schools. They gain so much from this content.

As for agriculture, we have a lot of very good innovators (particularly those in the institutions for higher learning) who have come up with very good applications in agriculture. For instance, they are developing a smartphone app to identify plant diseases and make appropriate recommendations for cure. App users just need to take a picture of the affected plant and upload it.

In the area of health, a group of young people won last year's Women’s Empowerment Award at Microsoft’s global student software competition in St. Petersburg, Russia by developing an easy, pain-free app that allows users to test if they have malaria without having to be subjected to needles. Code 8 members, Brian Gitta, Joshua Businge, Simon Lubambo and Josiah Kavuma developed a matiscope, which can be linked to a smartphone. The user need only insert his or her finger into the matiscope, which red light goes through the skin to identify the red blood cells. It is a fast diagnostic test that takes only about 15 minutes, and can be done on one's own. It can revolutionize that way we test for malaria and we are strongly supporting it. We are looking for investors to back it up.

We are also assisting health centers, giving them computers. We are working with the Ministry of Health (MH) to see how we can use expertise to support our rural hospitals. We can make it such that a young doctor in a rural area can consult with an expert or a senior doctor (about the results he got from testing a patient), in say, a hospital in Malaba, without having to send the patient to Malaba. We are giving these health centers the hardware. We are also looking to supplement that with connectivity.

The hospital in Malaba is already online and it has a way to connect to the best hospitals in India.

How is ICT transforming the way citizens can interact with the government?

Every Ministry must have a working and accessible website. We are pushing for these websites to be updated. We encourage our citizens to voice out their suggestions and not be afraid to point out that a site needs updating, or if the user interface needs to be improved.

What are your thoughts on censorship and social media?

We believe in the freedom of speech. There is no censorship in terms of what people post on social media. Social media is a good way to engage with our young people. I spend about 2 hours a day on platforms like Facebook, doing that very thing. I want our young people to feel involved.

It might interest you to know that our Prime Minister (PM) is the second most followed person in the country.

H.E. Pres. Yoweri Museveni has a very decent web page. It has been up and running for 6 months now. We hope that he will eventually expand it to include more platforms for engaging with the citizens.

We are teaching the other Ministers to increase their interactions with the youth through these digital platforms. I think that is the only way for any government in Africa to survive.

Do you ever have clashes with the people in TV?

While we do not normally censor content, we have disagreements with TV companies now and again (particularly, when they go overboard). They can discuss politics the way they want to.

How are you promoting local content in the media?

In a bid to promote local content, we are asking them to air local content. From 6:30 pm to 10:30 pm, 70% of the things on air have to be local. That is the only thing that we are trying to regulate.

Of course, we are giving them some time to adjust. You see, we are trying to promote our music, our film industry, our culture, our tourism, and so on.

On the side of banking, mobile transactions have changed the life of thousands of Ugandans.

Yes, most mobile service providers offer this feature. It is an integral part of this new age of ICT. Mobile money is one of the most used data products on the mobile network. ICT has improved the way we relate to each other both socially and economically.

The world is interconnected and the information moves really fast from one side of the world to the other, this new horizon bring lot of communication opportunities to explore, not just for companies but also for governments that need to brand their uniqueness globally. How would you comment on the international perception on Uganda?

I think there is a gap. We have not been engaging with some of the other countries very effectively. There have been some attempts through the embassies and the media, but there has not been a focused promotion strategy between Uganda and the US.

As Ugandans, it is our role to promote Uganda. We need to take on a more focused approach in promoting the country. They need to know how things really are now—how stable our government is, how secure our environment is, and how we have all the right things in place to help make their investments work.

What should the international audience understand about Uganda’s ICT sector?

ICT in Uganda is a well-regulated and highly competitive sector. There are a lot of opportunities to explore here; particularly in the area of data intake and solutions and infrastructure development.

The Ugandan market continues to grow. Uganda has the 3rd fastest-growing population in the world. In the next 20 years, they project that the population to double. In the next 13 years, they predict that Uganda will be a middle-income country. It is going to be a very robust ICT market with a big demand.

How would you like people to remember Uganda?

I want them to remember Uganda as a country with the best climate and conditions.