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Zimbabwe has the highest literacy rate in Africa, and is subsequently finding a rapid adoption of new technology, particularly with mobile and digital payments.
Its government is determined to build the infrastructure needed to create a foundation upon which its citizens can be connected and tech businesses can thrive. The country’s also in the process of raising $25 million to fund its next generation of young innovators to build locally-focused applications.
AB2020 spoke to Zimbabwe’s Minister for Information Communication Technology, Postal and Courier Services, Honourable Supa C Mandiwanzira at the recent ITU Telecom World 2017 in Busan, South Korea, to delve deeper in to Zimbabwe’s ICT landscape.
What brings you to ITU?
Firstly, we are a very big stakeholder and member of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Secondly, we participate quite actively in the activities of the ITU. Broadly, we have acknowledged as a country and a government that the world is shifting towards ICT; whether it’s industry, education, or social status in our societies, ICT is now very key, and it’s important to be where the global communities are meeting to discuss and churn out the future for ICT across the world. We’re also here to learn from other countries to see what they’re doing and achieving. We’ve been able to do so through our participation in Ministerial forums and presentations that are taking place here.
You’re at ITU to see what other countries are doing with ICT, but can you give us insight in to Zimbabwe’s technology landscape and how your country is moving forward in regards to tech development and digital transformation.
It’s very important to acknowledge the fact that you cannot do any transformation from an ICT perspective if you don’t provide the people with infrastructure. So the focus of the government has been, in the first instance, to provide access to the infrastructure for our general population. We have to build broadband networks, we have to build mobile networks, and I’m glad that to a very large extend we’ve been able to build a significant infrastructure that people can now rely on in terms of building up innovation services around smart services and things like that.
Our mobile [voice] penetration is 105% as a country. Active penetration is just under 95%. Data penetration sits just above 50%. So we are aggressively building a national broadband network, based on fibre, which will reach to all provinces and all districts of the country. And this is not just a government effort. This is being done by both government and private sector. Right now, we are sitting on more than 22,000 kilometres of fibre optic cables that have been laid throughout the country. We have an obligation that at least 80% of our population must have access to broadband by the year 2020.
One of our biggest successes has been the adoption of mobile money and digital payments. We have rapidly grown in that sector, and more than 87% of all our payments, particularly by big companies, are now made through mobile money and digital payments. We have completely gotten rid of the need for cash.
But we still have a challenge in the small to medium scale industries where they haven’t quite adopted this. So we have people selling vegetables and newspapers on the streets still relying on cash. We’ve had a disadvantage in our country in terms of cash, whereby we don’t use our own currency, we use foreign currencies and it’s expensive to get these foreign currencies. Therefore it has become a natural choice for people to rely on digital and mobile payments, so there has been a great push which has come out of our circumstances. We are the highest literate country in Africa [United Nations statistics], and as a result our people learn fast and are able to quickly adopt new technologies and new forms of payments.
Your fintech environment sounds very active, which we imagine comes with reforms in regulation. How is this affecting the way you look at policy to sustain and enable this new digital era?
I’m so glad you’ve raised this point. The pace at which people have adopted digital and mobile payments has been far much faster than regulation, so we’re actually lagging behind from a policy and regulation perspective.
You’ll find that a lot of things that are happening in the market don’t currently have any legal protection. We’re now in the process of formulating new laws that will protect those who are doing business and using digital and mobile payments.
We currently have under consideration by cabinet, just before it goes to Parliament, three bills: One is the Cyber Crime & Cyber Security Bill, which looks at how we protect the people who are using this infrastructure and using the Internet for business – how do we protect them?
We’re also looking at an E-Transactions Bill and a Data Protection Bill, because a lot of data becomes available as people use digital and mobile payments. How do we protect that data, and ensure those who have access to that data are using it responsibly? We are currently fast-tracking those laws to Parliament because the uptake has been much faster than the law reforms.
Are there any other focus areas for Zimbabwe’s government when it comes to ICT?
One of the most important things for us that we’re passionate about is the development of local content, and the development of local capacity in terms of applications. It’s so disappointing that government and local companies spend a lot of money on building infrastructure; we build mobile networks, we build fibre optic networks. And we then rely on software developers in Silicon Valley, or in India and Europe to utilise the services that are able to be offered as a result of the infrastructure we’ve built.
Our view is that we need to build our local capacity. There is nothing spectacular that is done in Silicon Valley that our people can’t do in Zimbabwe and in Africa if they are given incentives and infrastructure in which to do it. So through the Ministry of CIT we have created an Innovation Drive Fund which must help our young innovators to develop their software and applications; protect their copyright; build them to a commercial level, and ensure we assist them to access the correct domestic markets and platforms upon which those innovations can be sold.
If we are successful in Zimbabwe, we’ll then assist them to take those innovations outside of our country to the global market. This is what Africa needs to be doing. We cannot be building infrastructure just for Facebook and Google to come and make the profits. Our people must make the profits; we must create employment, create opportunities and keep the money in Africa.
How much money are you investing in this Innovation Drive Fund?
As a government, through our regulator we’ve raised $7 million (USD). We’ve set the target of $25 million, and we hope that when we get to $15 million we can then get the private sector to come in and partner with us. If you look at what the private sector is spending in terms of license fees for banking and accounting software, that money is not staying in Africa. We would like the private sector to partner with us so we can develop applications that are useful to the various sectors in our economy.
We’ve heard time and again that talent isn’t being developed for local content participation in Africa. What are your thoughts?
That is absolute propaganda. Let me be frank with you, there is nothing that’s being done in Silicon Valley, in India, or in Hungary in Europe that can’t be done in Africa. It is being done in Zimbabwe because we have institutions, such as the National University of Science and Technology, that are specifically focused on training people on how to create applications, how to create innovations, how to create software, how to do engineering, and how to invent.
What these young people have to do is to develop applications that are useful to the society in which they have experience and live in. For example, we have our own traditional games we’ve all played as young kids in the community. But those games are not known by people in Silicon Valley. How do we digitise those games and make money with them on a global level.
We’re doing it in Zimbabwe.
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