Tuesday, June 2, 2020

A National Digital Strategy is long overdue

BY VICTOR BAATWENG

The critical role of information and communications technology (ICT) in any nation’s economic competitiveness has long been recognized.

That is why many nations continue to roll out their respective digital strategies. In Botswana the ruling party ÔÇô BDP recently made a promise through its 2019 elections manifesto that it intends to fund digital entrepreneurs and deliver community based training in basic internet skills. This in our view is an indirect admission by the government of the day it has not done enough to date to ensure that there is an improvement in the levels of digital literacy. We have not been able to attract technology entrepreneurs or at bare minimum create centres of digital innovation.

While we applaud the party for promising a national digital strategy it is always a disappointment that the powers that be never make time frame commitment or targets. This has in the past led to failure to account by the government thus making a promise with no target like the one BDP has made is as good as avoiding accountability.

Failure aside, on Friday Botswana joined the rest of the world to commemorate the World Telecommunication and Information Society Day under the themes – Bridging the Standardization Gap; and Expanding Horizons, Changing Attitudes.

Ideally the commemoration is to be used to reflect on the country’s ICT sector. This could be in relation to the uptake and usage of ICTs across the country and on how it can help grow the local economy while creating wealth for the locals.

The day commemorations should ideally read like the – “The Story of Israel’s economic miracle”, a 2009 book by Dan Senor and  Saul Singer about the economy of Israel. The book examines how Israel, a 60-year-old nation with a population of 7.1 million, was able to reach such economic growth that at the start of 2009, some 63 Israeli companies were listed on the NASDAQ, more than those of any other foreign country.

The key question has always been: How on earth has Israel with no natural resources, enemies on every border and in a constant state of war was able to produce more start-up companies than any other peer nation?

Back home, our key question could be, how on earth does Botswana, with so many natural resources, no security threats on its borders, highly ranked on democracy and governance continues to fail its digital entrepreneurs ÔÇô both budding and established?

We are all aware of the fact that Botswana has so many times said that it has prioritised ICT as an engine of growth for the economy. But we also know that the sentiments which are usually made at gatherings such as the one that was in Sefhare are just part of our usual “talk and do nothing” policy and gesture.

For so many years past ministers of communications have advanced government’s commitment to solving apparent market failures, which arise from the gap in broadband connectivity thus hindering access across various sectors of the economy.

It is unfortunate that even to date no one knows what exactly the government is doing to correct such an impediment. 

There is no doubt that given that Botswana seeks to achieve inclusive growth in NDP 11, one of the ways to achieve it is through ICT entrepreneurship. 

If there is any ideal time to boost ICT entrepreneurship as an economic diversification tool in our country, it is now. This is so partly because Botswana continues to be ranked as a laggard along other sub-Saharan Africa countries when it comes to performance of this particular economic sector.  

As shown in the 2014 Network Readiness Index (NRI), our country is ranked at position 103 out of 148 countries with a below average score of 3.4 out of 7.

Perhaps to share a little more on this particular report, the NRI considers a number of indicators, among them the political and regulatory environment and effectiveness of law making bodies. 

Other pillars that are also looked at include the rate of software piracy, availability of latest technologies, availability of venture capital, procedures and number of days needed to start a business and government procurement of advanced technology. 

The major reason why our country should actively diversify the economy towards ICT is because of the potential in this sector given the number of graduates in the sector, both employed and unemployed. 

Our view is that with over 5 000 unemployed graduates in the ICT sector at least by March 2011 and a tertiary institution enrolment that stands at about 31000, policy makers in the ICT sector should be doing more to capitalise on the current situation.

They need to up their game and insure that unlike in other sectors, locals are brought on board to drive the economic diversification. 

It is quite evident that elsewhere in developing economies, policy and law makers are busy harnessing their innovation potential to reinforce resilience against turbulent markets and sustain rapid economic growth. In their quest, many countries are now turning to information and communication technologies, in their role as key enablers of innovation and new employment opportunities. Why can’t we do the same here?

The excitement that has come about as a result of the expansion of this youth oriented sector over the past few years also provides evidence of the potential that lies ahead for the diversification of the domestic economy. 

In addition, traditional industries such as agriculture, mining, manufacturing and tourism will benefit from the introduction of ICTs into ongoing operations. 

Even the Local Entrepreneurship Authority (LEA) would agree with us that their clients, being SMEs, need online initiatives which could also be used as training platforms for provision of necessary tools to move their businesses on-line and use the internet as a vehicle for increasing productivity and sales. 

The general agreement between us and ICT policy makers should be that although some level of progress has been made, it is quite evident that severe weaknesses still persist in the sector precisely in response to business and innovation ecosystems. This trend, as anyone would tell seems to have resulted in very low positive economic and social impacts.

The trend as such calls for a professional regulation that requires improvement in driving the economy to not just a knowledge economy but also an economy that is led by the ICT sub sector. The fact that the government has already invested a lot in the ICT sector as shown by establishment of entities such as BoFiNet is a good sign that atleast there is someone who was at some point doing something right at the government enclave. On the same footing, there is no doubt that the Botswana Innovation Hub ÔÇô if it cannot stop turning itself into a real estate player/landlord is a good initiative that could benefit Botswana if properly managed. But when can we start seeing the tangibles of the two entities?

In addition, one ought to also state that our small population also gives the government and other donors an upper hand to empower the marginal communities with gadgets that they can use in technological innovations and solutions. That is what happening elsewhere in this global village we live in. 

The #Bottom-line, however, is that there is need to create more partnership particularly between leading ICT academia which will accelerate the development of promising technologies as well as commercialisation which in turn will result in economic diversification. That way, maybe we can also be a Start-UP Nation like conflict-ridden Israel.

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