By Ashnah Kalemera
What role are Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) playing in enabling private sector development in developing countries? And what are countries in Africa and other developing regions doing to enable ICT play a greater catalysing role in national development? These were some of the questions discussed at the launch in Kampala of the Information Economy Report 2011, themed ‘Information and Communication Technologies as an Enabler for Private Sector Development (PSD)’.
The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and the College of Computer and Information Sciences, Makerere University, organised the launch of the report in Uganda, on October 19, 2011, the day it was released worldwide. The report is the sixth in a series published by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
This year’s report addresses the role of ICT in accelerating development in developing regions. It seems to conclude that whereas there is great potential, in many countries insufficient effort has been given to enabling ICT to play a more robust role. Furthermore, the report states that substantial challenges remain for many countries that are seeking to leverage on ICT to enable social and economic transformation.
Various instructive cases of how ICT is working beneficially are captured in the report. There is ICT training of entrepreneurs in Burkina Faso, Ghana and Panama; ICT-based agricultural information services in Ethiopia, Kenya and Zambia; Using ICTs for micro-finance in Côte d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone; and mobile money, which has enabled a new range of financial services in Kenya and Mexico.
The report also provides global statistical analysis on ICT infrastructure and ICT use by enterprises of different sizes and in various industries. During 2009, international telecommunications infrastructure investments (with private participation) were led by Sub-Saharan Africa with just over US$60,000 million. South Asia came in second with slightly under US$50,000 million. East Asia and the Pacific invested the least – less than US$10,000 million.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, however, less than 20% of enterprises are reported to have websites. Senegal leads the continent in ICT utilisation, with 92% of its enterprises using computers, an average 84% using the internet and 2%-12% of them receiving and placing orders online. Second in Africa is Lesotho, where 34% of enterprises use computers and 17% use the internet. All this in pale comparison to the developed world where over 90% of enterprises use computers and the internet, 80% have their own websites and 15%-40% place and receive orders online.
The report argues that the internet is an important channel for enterprises to engage with governments. Access to relevant information and electronic services such as taxation and government assistance carries great potential for enterprise cost reduction and improved efficiency. UNCTAD data suggests that enterprises in the developing world hardly use the internet for obtaining information from government, and even less so for conducting transactions.
This year’s report reveals that government programmes’ more effective use of ICT to support Micro and Small Enterprises (MSEs) will help accelerate job creation and business growth. Indeed, mobile applications and social media are enabling numerous ways to provide services and information and connect buyers and customers. The report proposes a framework to help governments ensure that the services provided are truly demand-driven by involving the private sector in the design and provision of training and advisory services.
UNCTAD specifically challenges governments to help women entrepreneurs. The report observes that faced with challenges including difficulty in accessing finance and family commitments, many women are unable to take advantage of available opportunities. Therefore, initiatives targeted at women should assess gender needs and explore how different ICT solutions can address them.
Ultimately, the report calls upon governments to liberalise markets in order to expand and improve network infrastructure, especially in rural areas, and provide a conducive legal and regulatory environment for ICT advancements.
At the Kampala launch, however, participants expressed concern that Uganda was not well featured in the report, noting that it was not clear what achievements or challenges the country faced. Many contributors suggested that government should get more involved in investing in ICT and private sector development. Initiatives such as investing in local content development, increasing information flow from government to citizens, investing in open data, supporting local IT companies by providing local supplier authorisations to bid for government IT jobs, and removal of taxes on mobile phone handsets and airtime, were among those suggested.
The Director of e-Government at the National Information Technology Authority Uganda (NITA-U), Julius Torach, delivered a government statement while Ali Ndiwalana of Makerere University Directorate for ICT Support, highlighted the main findings of this year’s report with a focus on the East African region.
Mr. Torach stated that the report comes at a time when Uganda has taken giant steps towards promoting both ICT and private sector development. He cited the October 7, 2011 launch of the National Data Transmission Backbone Infrastructure/National Electronic Government project which is expected to trigger private sector development through the provision of high-speed internet access to facilitate Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), among others.
In collaboration with Makerere University, NITA-U has successfully trained 500 youths to work for BPO operations. “In all our endeavours, we have emphasised private-public partnerships in delivery of IT infrastructure and management of IT services,” said Mr. Torach.
At the policy level, Uganda is reviewing the national ICT policy, while the National Information Managements Services policy is also underway.
The IER 2011 Uganda launch was held at Makerere University and the event was graced by the media, ICT enthusiasts, private and public sector representatives as well as students. The IER 2011 full report and its databases are available here.
By Ashnah Kalemera