ICT helps drive Uganda’s growth but sector faces challenges, says top official
Information and communications technology (ICT) has been instrumental in Uganda’s development, connecting communities and businesses at both the local and international levels, says Vincent Waiswa Bagiire, permanent secretary at the ICT ministry in Kampala. Although the sector does face some major challenges, ICT is a tool that promotes economic growth and offers opportunities for Ugandans to improve their lives, he says.
‘ICT has played a critical role in the advancement of the country,’ Bagiire said, with gains covering the economic, social and cultural spectrum. ‘The contribution spans primary growth sectors including but not limited to health, education, agriculture, tourism and infrastructure, such as transport.’
For Uganda, ICT is a way to achieve development objectives, given operating constraints such as a lack of infrastructure and human capacity. The government has been working hard to digitize the country, and its efforts have borne fruit, Bagiire says. ICT is one of the most competitive and fastest-growing sectors in the country, largely driven by telecommunications. Last year, Uganda advanced five places in the International Telecommunication Union’s ICT Development Index, placing it twentieth in Africa and second within East Africa. The improved ranking was attributed largely to the rollout of ICT infrastructure by both the government and the private sector.
Technology has underpinned Uganda’s development by improving public and private sector services delivery; providing better access to information, knowledge and communication; creating jobs and reducing poverty; and spurring economic growth by boosting exports. The ICT sector has grown 19.7% on average each year since 2013, adding 2.5% annually to the country’s gross domestic product.
The improved legal, technical and regulatory environment has encouraged a growing number of Ugandans to embrace ICT and automate business services, according to Bagiire. This has ‘greatly improved service delivery, which has contributed to national development’, he explained. ‘This is manifested in reduced time to access services, transparency, reduction of human interaction and accountability.’
For example, Uganda’s e-immigration system has slashed the number of days to process a work permit to four from 30. More than three million work-hours have been saved thanks to automated ordering and ‘last mile’ delivery– the movement of goods from a transportation hub to the final delivery destination – for antiretroviral medication to treat HIV/AIDS.
At the same time, internet bandwidth costs have dropped thanks to the creation of a national fibre optic network, liberalization of communication services and an improved legal and regulatory environment, Bagiire says. Initiatives such as electronic learning and the Government Citizen Interaction Centre, which lets Ugandans provide feedback about their needs and opinions about service delivery, ‘have compounded into improved literacy, inclusiveness and participation by citizens and other stakeholders, which has greatly positively impacted national development’, he noted.
Opportunities and challenges
With the advent of emerging technologies including blockchain, telemedicine, cloud computing and robotics, Bagiire sees opportunities for Ugandan ICT companies to expand both at home and abroad. ‘Advances in sciences such as medicine, pharmaceuticals, physics and chemistry generate innovations that create demand for accelerated ICT development,’ he said. Foreign and local companies are investing in ICT hardware development and Uganda’s population is skilled in creating software, he added. And when it comes to business process outsourcing onshore and offshore, ‘there is willingness to outsource noncore activities’.
That’s not to say it’s all smooth sailing, however. While the prognosis is good – Uganda’s IT enabled services market is expected to grow 70% between 2013 and 2020 – the country and its tech companies must cope with challenges such as limited financial resources, fragmented ICT initiatives, inadequate facilities, the duplication of tech systems, inadequate public-private partnerships, expensive data and skills gaps caused by what Bagiire called a ‘misalignment of academia and industry’.
Projects such as the Netherlands Trust Fund IV (NTF IV) can help, he says. NTF IV offers support services ‘in terms of trade, investment, technical and entrepreneurship capacity building throughout the start-up value chain [and] provides an avenue for business linkages and technical partnerships/collaborations with external companies, which shall support our start-ups’, he said.
NTF IV, based on a partnership between the International Trade Centre and the Dutch Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries (known as CBI, for the Dutch acronym), also helps micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, especially new businesses, to increase exports, Bagiire says. The project ‘put in place a mechanism through which policymakers and regulators can support, monitor and evaluate the operations of start-ups,’ he added.