Botswana ICT Challenges: In Quest For A Knowledge-Based Society

By Hopeton S. Dunn |

During his inauguration in November 2019, Botswana’s President, Mokgweetsi Masisi, declared his intention to diversify Botswana’s economy and transform it into a knowledge-based one. President Masisi was acutely aware that Botswana’s rapid rise to become an upper middle income country was largely based on earnings from diamond exports and, to a lesser extent, high-end tourism, industries that are either volatile or unsustainable in the longer run.

Botswana has a record of economic transformation which saw Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grow at an average  rate of 8.78% between 1991 and 2014. In the same period, literacy levels moved from 68.58% in 1991 to 87.7% by 2014, having been at 34% in 1981. However, job creation has not kept pace with population growth or the increasing literacy levels. According to Statistics Botswana, while unemployment stood at 10.75% in 1981, by 2013 it had grown to 20%.

Between 2015 and 2019, GDP grew by an average of 2.59 %, a significant fall from the preceding decades.

To move  from a minerals-led to a knowledge-based economy, the government undertook to implement reforms to expand employment and make Botswana’s products and services more competitive on the world market. The Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector was expected to contribute to this effort. As an indicator of its prospects, cellular phone subscriptions moved from 13 per 100 inhabitants in 2000, to over 169 per 100 of inhabitants in 2014. There was a distinct possibility of ICT opening up new jobs and development opportunities, especially for youth in new occupational areas such as digital design, online content production, and data analytics. According to the Youth Empowerment Minister, Tumiso Rakgare: “We want to move with new trends and best practices in the content creation industry.”

This would require improved internet access, new e-government strategies, and expanded use of ICT as measures towards job creation and ICT-enabled development.  As is shown below, it has been a mixed record.

Amazing Infrastructure

Over the last decade, Botswana invested extensively in infrastructure to support the vision of a digital-enabled development, with USD 32.3 million pumped into the Trans-Kalahari Fibre Network. The network was intended to deliver 2,000 kilometres of optical fibre across the land-locked country’s southern regions and to link into nearby countries such as Namibia and South Africa.

Another fibre-optic loop links the capital, Gaborone, in the south, to the northern population hub of Francistown. The country is also linked to the rest of Africa through the Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSy) and the West Africa Cable System (WACS).

Against the background of these major investments, Botswana’s ICT policy and regulatory arrangements were to be repurposed to help translate this elaborate infrastructure into advanced levels of corporate communication, citizen access and high-speed connectivity for national development. The current national strategic masterplan, dubbed Vision 2036, aims to realise these goals by transforming Botswana from an upper middle-income country to a high-income country by 2036. Its implicit aim is to use ICT as a transformational tool towards creating a knowledge-based society.

Deficits and Challenges

While the broad provisions of the strategic plan remain relevant and admirable, it is evident that a foundation of technological transformation was not explicitly embedded in the Plan’s published descriptors. A dedicated ICT pillar, as a necessary component of the sought after knowledge society, seems to be missing. While there has been progress in implementing such laws and policies as the Cyber Crime and Computer Related Crimes Act (2018) and the Botswana National Cyber Security Strategy (2020), other approved policies and laws remain in abeyance. These include the Data Protection Act, which was approved by Parliament in 2018 but has not yet implemented. This is because the establishment of some key institutional structures and regulations are awaited. The same is true for Botswana’s controversial Media Practitioners Act 2008, which is now facing revocation and a possible re-write.

If the noble objectives in Vision 2036 are to be realised, Botswana’s policy and implementation structures will need to be more agile in order to meet the commitment for a knowledge-based society. This goal will also remain challenging given the economic setbacks caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite the high levels of infrastructure investment, there is little evidence of an expected incoming flow of ICT-related foreign direct investments, or of innovative local investors preparing to build out digital platforms and offer new creative services. It is these initiatives and hoped-for investments that would generate the increased employment levels that the Youth Empowerment Minister had envisaged. In reality, expanded career opportunities such as those in content development services, animation, film production and digital design appear slow to emerge, but are necessary catalysts. Hopefully, the expected early fruits of the vast infrastructure investment in an intended diversified knowledge economy will emerge soon.

One of the agencies that could help to drive the process of renewal is the Botswana Communications Regulatory Authority (BOCRA), whose function it is to oversee a converged ICT and Broadcasting environment – key building blocks of the digital, knowledge-based economy. BOCRA’s roles include oversight over the electronic media, regulation of internet service provision and promoting the broader telecommunications network systems that are needed to power the development of data intensive services.

Established in 2013, the well-resourced BOCRA inherited considerable experience from its predecessor, the Botswana Telecommunications Authority. The institutional restructuring that gave rise to BOCRA was clearly part of a process of telecoms liberalisation that spawned several small internet service providers (ISPs) and new radio broadcasters. The regulatory restructuring also led to the creation of Botswana Fibre Networks Limited, BOFINET, the infrastructure provider, and to the emergence of a separate privatised BTC mobile telephony offshoot called BeMobile. These too should be playing a more dynamic and visible part in building the knowledge society. This new BeMobile company has become a cell phone competitor to its more established incumbents, Orange and Mascom.

This liberalised competitive framework was undergirded by some key legislative reforms that were meant to give legs to the country’s strategic development plan, Vision 2036, and no doubt to the new drive for knowledge society status. The liberalisation process and its outcome were given context by Botswana’s earlier  National ICT Policy of 2004, widely known as ‘Maitlamo’, that foreshadowed many of the current regulatory and legislative changes.  The Communications Regulatory Authority Act of 2012 that established BOCRA as a converged regulator, was also meant to help streamline the country’s ICT strategies, but key challenges remain.

Poor Network Service

Contrary to BOCRA’s 2015 User Survey, which indicated that almost 80% of internet users were satisfied with service quality, there appears to be deepening concerns about effective internet access and network service quality by a growing community of smartphone users. Stats Botswana indicates that while mobile broadband subscription was at 3 per 100 of inhabitants in 2000, this had grown to 67 per 100 of inhabitants by 2017. Despite this dramatic growth in mobile cellular subscription, there are complaints that prices on mobile airtime and on data bundles are challenging for lower income users, including students and some educators who have been forced to migrate online in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic’s effect on educational service delivery.

A February 4, 2018 report in the Sunday Standard newspaper said BOCRA, the regulator, had released a report on recent consumer complaints against telecoms service providers. The newspaper report said that, according to BOCRA, the complaints concerned, among others, billing, missing airtime and data bundles, faulty telephone lines, slow internet speeds, mobile money and termination of contracts. In an  earlier report  in The Gazette newspaper of March 30, 2017, it was alleged that consumer prices were inflated. The newspaper posed questions to operators, including,  “why do all mobile operators charge almost similar – between 60 thebe and 1.50 (pula) per MB?” The Gazette also inquired about what operators thought of “consumer complaints about the high prices in the market”. The report suggested that to some users, internet service provision in Botswana was expensive, spotty and way too slow for promised package speeds.

In light of these challenges, a key question for policy-makers is how regulation of internet prices and mobile service quality will be carried out in order to facilitate innovation among youthful ICT enthusiasts and digital business ventures. Should there be more consistent oversight over mobile termination rates and more aggressive monitoring of service quality?

Yet, getting to the coveted ‘knowledge society’ threshold cannot be based primarily on improved ICT service delivery and reduced pricing alone. It must also include reforms in broadcasting policy, provisions for cost-effective management of big data, training in cultural and creative industries, and competitive regional marketing for design and production services. While the critical issues of digital access, network quality and affordable prices remain central to successfully driving buildout of the future knowledge society, other factors, such as incentives for private investments, wide-scale ICT training and agile policy implementation are also crucial in transforming one of Africa’s most peaceful and prosperous countries.

Hopeton S. Dunn is a a Professor of Media and Communications at University of Botswana. As a   CIPESA Fellow, he is interested in communications policy reform, digital literacy and inclusion, effective internet access and equity, especially as they relate to people in the Global South. His work spans media regulation, technology policy-making, and new theoretical constructs for development.