The Challenges of Digital Public Infrastructure in Uganda
December 6, 2022
I was walking in Mpumudde Village one evening, just outside Uganda’s capital Kampala, when I found several young people seated in an open shelter. They all seemed pre-occupied by their gadgets. As an ethnographer, I was curious to move closer and find out what they were all doing. So, I did. I drew closer and spoke to a young lady who told me exactly why they were all seated in this particular location: to access free Wi-Fi.
She told me that she runs a small boutique in Kampala but, due to increased rent and low sales, she had to close down her store and instead sell her clothes online using social media. To cut costs, she comes to the shelter to tap into the free Wi-Fi, upload photos of her products, and interact with potential customers. The shelter is solar powered and provided by ROKE Telkom, a Ugandan home-grown public service provider for voice and data communications services.
In the nearby Buddo Village, another public infrastructure has been established in the form of a community ICT Learning Center. The attendant working at this Center explained that there are several other Centers in communities across Uganda where satellite masts have been installed. While the ICT Learning Center is well equipped, I discovered that the nearby community are yet to appreciate and fully utilize the facilities. It seems the existing digital divide in this community has restricted residents from embracing such technology. I asked one community member why he had not yet utilized these free services given the Center was so close to his home, and he explained that he was “too old” to learn computer skills and that his ancestors didn’t understand the ICT language. Another youth who I met in the Center told me he had embraced the facility through his enthusiasm to better his life from ICT skilling.
These two incidences, both positive and negative, portray the underlying issues that require all stakeholders to consider when thinking of digital transformation in Uganda. Issues to do with infrastructure, access to energy, the digital divide, cultural norms, cost of internet and so many others are all key issues that cannot be ignored while designing a digital transformation road map.
It seems my findings from these two villages have also been backed-up by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) National Labour Force Survey 2021, which indicates that a staggering 88% of Ugandans have never used internet. For those that do use the internet, only 7% use it on a daily basis. When it comes to mobile phone usage, 49% of Ugandans use their own phone while 39% rely on other mediums as their source of communication and acquiring information. The Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) enabled mobile money transactions have so far made it easy for many Ugandans to embrace this digital transfer of their finances, hence we see a much higher usage of rudimentary “feature phones” instead of smart phones in rural communities.
The Ministry of ICT and National Guidance designed the Digital Uganda Vision, a National Policy and Strategic Framework that reviews, integrates and improves existing ICT strategies, policies and plans into one overarching vision for Uganda. This policy is aligned with the country’s National Development Plan (NDP III) as well as the Uganda Vision 2040. In line with this Digital Uganda Vision, the previously mentioned statistics on internet usage need to be drastically improved.
In principle, Uganda is well grounded when it comes to the enabling regulatory framework to allow digitalization to thrive. Rather, the challenge is in implementation. To address these challenges, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) together with the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance has embarked on designing Uganda’s long-term Digital Transformation Roadmap to strengthen implementation of the enabling policies and laws to accelerate Uganda’s digital revolution. This road map will also explore a Big Data Utilization Strategy to enable implementation of data privacy and protection laws, while developing a Digital Skills Acceleration Programme to support re-education.
The next blog to come from the Accelerator Lab Uganda team will take you into greater depth on the Digital Transformation Roadmap, plans for its implementation, and lessons from other already digitized countries.
To be continued…
By Hadijah Nabbale, Head of Solutions Mapping
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