Debate on the “Digital SADC” Dream
Come 2027, the SADC region may truly earn itself the title “Digital SADC” if plans to improve the sector currently being outlined in the Regional Infrastructure Development Master Plan ICT Sector Plan are implemented.
“Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have become the lifeblood of the knowledge economy or, as some have observed, the electricity of the 21st Century. In either case, affordable access to ICTs is a human right as well as a significant contributor to economic growth and social well‐being” reads part of the ICT Master Plan.
The ICT Master Plan clearly says, once achieved, the 'Digital SADC', will bring “some key benefits that are expected to result from becoming a knowledge‐based society”.
According to the Plan, some of the benefits include: well‐informed rapid decision‐making – efficient, transparent governance, globally competitive industries and the knowledgeable public; lifelong learning – instant access to knowledge and better jobs; social and cultural inclusion – the end of isolation and discrimination; more wealth and livelihood creation options and employment opportunities; and more efficient cross‐border travel and seamless markets for goods and services.
ICT experts in the region are currently sounding public opinion on whether the SADC region was ripe to flex its muscles in the ICT sector.
The ICT gurus in the region are advancing various views on SADC’s capability to become an ICT giant, or as the region’s Master Plan puts it, the “Digital SADC” by 2027.
But many are questioning the reality of the region becoming a giant in ICT when it is plagued with a number of challenges, including shortage of essential foodstuffs, water supply, electricity and other basic necessities.
Perhaps putting a spotlight on how some countries in the region are faring in terms of ICT would give us an idea of whether the region may truly turn into the “Digital SADC” by 2027, according to the ICT Master Plan.
The idea of the SADC region developing into an ICT giant by 2027 has the support of all the member states, including the Director of Broadband and Universal Services under the Botswana Communication Regulatory Authority, Maitseo Ratladi, who says the vision is a step in the right direction in light of the present-day reality in her country.
“But of course, one of the challenges that we have been facing in Botswana in the ICT sector is that you have to ensure that every part of the country is connected or it has access to the ICT services and we do that through our Universal Service Program,” she says.
On the other hand, Ratladi says in Botswana, the ICT sector has been an agent of economic development and has improved the way people have access to services, including government services that are available, saying people are able to go to government websites to see what the government has in store for them.
“In terms of voice connectivity, we have over 100 percent of mobile penetration; we have 80 percent of mobile broadband available for a mobile company, but we still have a challenge regarding the fixed-mobile broadband mobile penetration which is still very low,” she says.
But Ratladi acknowledges that ICT connectivity in her country remains a challenge because of electricity, especially for people in villages.
She says, “So, I would encourage that member countries should have source connectivity of power because it is critical in ensuring that people have access to ICT. In Botswana, we have the full support of political leaders who are eager to see the program rolled out to rural masses as well.”
And, Emily Khamula Lungu, who is the Head of Universal Services at the Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (MACRA), says Malawi fully supports SADC’s effort to develop into an ICT giant by 2027, but adds with caution that the member countries must organize themselves to achieve the plan.
“For Malawi to achieve the universal ICT service, we are making sure that operators comply with laid-down conditions, according to their licences,” she says.
Lungu says to ensure Malawi achieves her ICT goals government has established the Universal Service Fund through Communications Act.
“Through this Fund, MACRA collects levy from service providers and these funds are later used to address some communication challenges the country faces,” she says.
On the other hand, Mauritius Universal Service Fund Coordinator, Hansen Ramasamy, says his country, which is relatively small with a population of 1.2 million, has problems which are not similar to those which other countries are facing.
“We have seen that challenges that are found in other African countries are not any similar to what we’re facing; for example, we do not have any major issue in terms of internet connectivity, mobile connectivity, fixed line connectivity and we don’t differentiate because we have one big connectivity covering rural and urban areas,” Ramasamy says.
Ramasamy says connectivity, in terms of mobile fixed connectivity is quite good in his country and says they have broadband the penetration rate of about 90 percent.
He says Mauritius has broadband connectivity of 91 percent.
“Maybe one of the advantages of having high connectivity is political stability, because without stability you cannot achieve anything in any sector, not even in technology.”
Turning to Zambia, Nina Hamakowa, Universal Access Fund Project Officer, says they, too, have problems which, of course, she says they are trying to overcome.
“We do have some challenges such as getting to people who are in remote areas and also issues to do with financing; if funds were available already, we will have to connect everyone. Just like other countries in the region our budget has competing needs, so we are not able to cover people at a pace which we would like to cover them,” she says.
“But am also glad to say that interventions have been made; for example, currently, the government is rolling out 1009 towers in different parts of the country in the 10 provinces and we hope that will improve network provision to people. I can say that we have at least 50 percent of people connected,” she says.
Hamakowa says when people are not connected, it becomes difficult for them to get things like news; difficult for them to transact online; and fail to get exposed to things that are coming on the market.
She says, “So, we feel that people that are connected have more advantage than those that are not connected and we just hope that other interventions could be found because with connectivity people can reduce cost of doing business.”
But what can other countries in the region learn from Zambia?
“What they can learn from Zambia is that they should prioritize ICT and have good political willing to advance ICT and other countries can take that as an example, and also ensuring that right manpower is put in place to promote ICT,” Hamakowa says.
Indeed, many citizens in SADC have been wondering how the region could turn into an ICT giant, or “Digital SADC” when a myriad challenges-including shortage of essential foodstuffs, water supply, electricity and other basic necessities-plaque countries.