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Zambia 2017 | TELECOMS & IT | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Margaret Chalwe-Mudenda, Director General of the Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority (ZICTA), on recent projects, internet penetration, and developing capacity.

What recent projects has ZICTA launched in Zambia?

ZICTA has been government's implementing partner for a few years now. Following the revision of the ICT Act in 2009, our mandate expanded and we were able to help the government more actively implement some of its developmental projects in the ICT sector. From 2011, we started our drive to facilitate universal access, rolling out connectivity to underserved areas. Between 2012 and 2014, we installed geo-sim sites in rural areas. Over the total period, we installed 204 towers that initially provided communication for 400,000 people, and has since generated over 1 million web subscribers. Another recent project is the national addressing project. In Zambia, we have witnessed massive population growth in the last 20 years. Many smaller municipalities began expanding rapidly, with urban areas mushrooming across the country. However, this was accompanied by a lack of corresponding organization and town planning. The Ministry of Lands had one record while the city council had another; there was no communication or overlap between the two systems. We realized this was not a desirable situation, and therefore went to UPU and were given guidelines on how to implement a national addressing program. Through universal access we reviewed the existing numbering system, coming up with a new, logical way of numbering houses and naming streets. We carried out this initiative in high-density as well as low-density areas, and have broken records as the first country to provide such a system in villages in Africa. The project was designed to encourage e-commerce and also guarantee accessibility to emergency services.

What will be the impact of the Zambia National Data Centre (ZNDC) and what services will it provide for shareholders?

The country did not have a national data center, and we realized this could provide vital services for the public and private sectors. We hope it will attract institutions to store their main databases at the ZNDC and offer backup to ensure business continuity. The center is being built and developed to tier-three standard, and therefore can provide globally competitive services for both the public and private sectors. To attract these business, we need to assure people that the system is highly secure. We were also acutely aware that the project would have to be commercially viable from the beginning. There are three sites located across the country, and for us to sustain global standards and best practice in all of these sites, we cannot afford to house information for free. We are working closely with Huawei, because it has the business expertise in this area. We have engaged other partners that can help us grow commercially as this is something new for us and capacity will not appear overnight. Our people are being trained and have been trained; however, implementing such a world-class initiative, and a first for Zambia, means we require time to develop and mature.

How does ZICTA work alongside the government and its partners to review ICT legislation in the country?

We have been hard at work reviewing all the acts, since our laws are mostly built on policies brought about in the 1990s. In the 1990s, the ICT matrix was in a different state than today. Then, we were a telecom center; now we need to move with the trends of a rapidly digitalizing world. We want to instill a legal framework that is flexible and does not require constant revision. With this in mind, we are redrafting the ICT Act, the ETC Act, and the Postal Services Act. We propose drawing up new laws; items in current laws that were previously listed as paragraphs or sub-clauses now need to stand out prominently as laws of their own. These include e-commerce and cyber security. ZICTA works closely with the World Bank to ensure these new regulations are relevant, incisive, and up-to-date.

To what do you attribute Zambia's relatively low internet penetration rates?

Penetration for voice communication in Zambia has rapidly improved: between 2011 and 2013 we climbed five places in the global ranking. However, data penetration, before the arrival of cheap smartphones, was embarrassingly low by ITU standards, at 3%. When we saw an increase in smartphone sales, we saw more people consuming data on their devices, pushing penetration up to just under 30%. This is a remarkable increase, though still not good enough. There are two critical issues here: literacy and price. We cannot talk about internet penetration if people cannot see the value in it. Considering many people cannot read or do not understand English, this immediately excludes a large number of potential users. If we can increase local content and have a local voice to encourage people to connect, we will see an increased appetite for digital platforms. The other aspect is that internet services in Zambia are expensive: we still rank amongst the most highly priced for connectivity in the region. This is because we are landlocked: everything that comes into the country incurs high transit costs. Then, because penetration is low, whatever data comes into the country has to be shared among this small number, bumping up costs. If we can obtain a higher penetration rate, the market will automatically depress and bring down these costs. If we can also look at a cheaper way of bringing in internet, this could also have an impact. We are working on a project to install virtual landing stations, for instance. Finally, it is important to remember that we also face high taxes. We have received feedback on this from a number of investors, all of whom demand a better pricing mechanism.

What future initiatives does ZICTA have planned for 2017?

We have been working tirelessly to ensure ICT literacy levels are boosted across the nation. We want to ensure our development is aligned with the goals set by World Information Technology and Services Alliance (WITSA). WITSA tasked its directors with connecting all villages and schools to the web by 2015. In the last decade or so, the UN has highlighted that ICT access is a human right. We began a project to provide communities with access through schools, setting up ICT labs and ensuring that all tertiary education facilities had connection. Since then, we have managed to set up connectivity at three public institutions, 69 colleges and universities, and about 200 schools, both primary and secondary. We are also constructing a computer assembly plant before the year ends. We hope these developments will inspire children who are coding software in class to see that there is a viable market and a future in the sector. Secondly we are working on setting up a standards lab in order to validate the standards of our equipment. Currently we do not have a physical assessment process to check the standards of equipment that is imported or produced locally. In fact, there are only one or two of these in Africa, and therefore we are working with ITU to consider Zambia as a regional center for standards that would serve Malawi, Zimbabwe, and other nearby countries.


 

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