Uganda’s ICT sector growth over the past 34 years has been championed by the private sector with a guiding hand from the government, particularly through liberalization of the sector, and more recently through deliberate policy through an empowered ICT ministry.
The ICT sector’s innovation & growth has always been inextricably linked with developments in the telecom sub-sector, which through its fierce rivalry has spurred growth in other sub-sectors by drastically reducing costs of connectivity in its ever-expanding networks.
The sector traces its roots to the pre-1990’s in a nearly dormant state having UTV & radio Uganda as the sole TV & radio channels and the now-defunct Uganda Posts and Telecommunications Corporation (UPTC), created in 1977 at the dissolution of the East African community, limping on from years of war and neglect.
Jump starting the ICT Sector
Change came in the gradual liberalization of the sector, first with Peter Katiti’s Cablesat TV that was launched in 1992. Closely followed by Sanyu TV, Sanyu FM and Capital FM in 1993, opening a shop to give Ugandans a different flare of information and entertainment. The telecom and internet service sub-sectors too, saw gradual liberalization and growth giving Ugandans, outside banking and academia, their first experience with the internet through dial-in services provided by players like Infocom, and through internet cafes, albeit charging fees as high as UGX 2000 per minute.
With the Communications Act enacted in 1997, UPTC was dissolved into Uganda Telecom, Uganda Post Limited (now called Posta), Post Bank Uganda and Uganda communications commission, which was given the role of industry regulator. With the newly granted powers to grant licenses, UCC went on to accept an application from the MTN Group in April 1998 to compete with Celtel Uganda which launched its operations in 1995, sparking a three-way telecommunications service race with Uganda Telecom Limited.
Mobile telephony and high-speed Internet for the masses
The introduction of MTN into the eco-system saw the number of mobile subscribers surpass that of fixed-line users by a ratio of more than 18:1 in one year, drastically dropping the cost to customers and extending mobile phone services from a few enclaves in Kampala, Jinja, and Entebbe to the rest of the country. Further introduction of more players, Warid Telecom and Orange Telecom in 2008, forced an even further drop in telephone prices, and the introduction of 3G internet.
High-speed internet connectivity along the way spurred business growth in the sector from SMS services, to online publications, ICT solutions developers to FinTech, mobile banking service and even the now infamous online forex trading business that has seen Ugandans make or lose millions alike.
In 2009, the then-ICT Minister, Hon. Aggrey Awori launched the Seacom cable link allowing the internet service providers (ISPs) to upgrade their services to 4G and fibre optic broadband.
In an effort to “sweat the assets” like fibre-optic cables that the telecoms had so diligently invested in countrywide, they expanded their services to the banking industry, Pay TVs and more, spurred on by the digital migration in 2015.
ICT driving Public Sector gains
The government was not left out in the innovation and adoption of ICT. Policy changes and the adaptation to the ever-morphing world of ICT required a new cadre of dynamic civil servants, all under the umbrella of the ministry of ICT.
Its inception under the leadership of Dr. Ham Mukasa Mulira, a seasoned ICT professional and executive director of Uganda Computer Service (Now called NITA-U), the ICT Ministry oversaw rapid change towards government’s embracing of ICT solutions.
Key accomplishments of the young ministry was the establishment of its constituent agencies UCC, Uganda Media Centre, UBC, Posta Uganda, GCIC that has established government’s online presence with 98% of government MDAs having websites and most notably NITA-U that has not only connected 420 government offices around the country with internet and leased lines but plans to connect every district to a secure network for locally developed information systems that will greater enhance government’s ability to serve in this digital age.
With concrete policies in place and a Digital Uganda vision that seeks to review, integrate, consolidate, and improve all the existing ICT strategies, policies and plans into one overarching “digital vision”, the future of Uganda’s ICT landscape is bright.
Innovating for self-reliance
Uganda has previously relied heavily on imported ICT solutions, both in the software and hardware. In an effort for self-reliance under the current National Strategic Plan (NSPII), the ICT ministry in 2017 launched the National ICT Initiatives Support Program (NIISP) to foster an ecosystem and marketplace for digitally innovative products that enable local ICT developers, government MDAs and enterprises to innovate faster, reach new markets and compete at an international level.
The challenge was to grow the ICT sector to a point where it contributed 10% of national revenue by 2020 while acting as a multiplier for other sectors like agriculture, tourism, minerals, oil and gas, infrastructure development and human capital development.
NIISP, through partnerships with local innovation hubs & academic institutions, has since promoted local ICT innovations by providing funding through grants to several ICT startups, including 6 billion worth of grants remitted to 89 innovators in 2019. NIISP has further gone ahead to network these able innovators by encouraging MDAs to adopt these locally developed systems that are a fraction of imported software. A good example of this is AMIS (Academic management information system), adopted by public universities that now manage all their finances, application process and provide government MDAs like the ministry of Finance, Planning & Economic development with data on collections made. AIMS has not only streamlined the student application process but made it much easier for students to apply through an online process, and easily make payments, thus avoiding long and unnecessary queues, as well as curbing corruption.
With the young internet-savvy population of Uganda increasingly becoming a digital one, with affordable smartphones, internet connectivity, and versatile payment solutions like mobile money and internet banking, government has no choice but to keep up the pace of this social media generation, with its thirst for easy-to-use, online services, accessed in their own comfort and choosing.
The days of standing in lines are over, now is the time for services online. And with Uganda’s ever-increasing indigenous ICT expertise and innovation, the present, and the future of our nation bright and immensely promising.
Published By John Birungi Babirukamu