‘African digital transformation not yet rapid’
Transform Africa Summit is a yearly leading African forum bringing together global and regional leaders from government, business and international organisations to collaborate on new ways of shaping and sustaining Africa’s on going digital revolution. The summit brings together leaders and experts across Africa to discuss different issues including Information and Computer Technology especially in the Eastern Africa. In this interview with Dolapo Aina, Rwandan’s Minister of Youth and Information and Communication Technology (MYICT), Jean Philbert Nsengimana spoke on the prospects of the 2017 Summit held in Kigali, Rwanda. Excerpts
Kigali recently played host to the Transform Africa Summit 2017. What is your holistic view of what transpired in the summit?
It was the third summit. It was the first summit after Smart Africa got its secretariat. Previous summits had been organised by the government of Rwanda through the Youth and ICT ministry but now, this is organised by the Smart Africa Secretariat, which is a big step in terms of growth and, majority of Smart Africa. I think three things transpired, one was and is that alliance is growing (several countries including South Africa, Sao Tome and Principe and Tunisia joined) and others participated to observe and would probably join later such as Democratic Republic of Congo. So, the alliance is growing. Under the Smart Africa, we have more than four hundred million people. Also, in terms of concrete outcomes, deals that are moving the organisation forward and that are delivering the promise of more investments into ICT have been struck and you could see that the excitement was palpable in terms of the promise this organisation has for its members and has for the transformation of Africa. Thirdly, is inclusion. The fact that women and youth featured very strongly in the organisation and in the content programme; panels and that the agenda for digital transformation is broadly on and leaving no one behind; I think that is very important and a big success for the organisation.
Are there noticeable milestones from the event of 2015 and 2017?
There are so many milestones. In 2015, we had seven members; today we have twenty members. The size of the organisation tripled. Do, remember that the core objective of the organisation is that countries need to prioritise ICT. That is foremost and to put ICT at the centre of national transformation development and make it digital. So, when you see Heads of State, making commitments, when you see communities coming together, when you see the private sector, academia, youth and women coming together from across the Continent. Only by that, the organisation is moving towards its goal. But then, if I spoke from a member country perspective, with the government of Rwanda and what has happened between the summit held in 2015 and this year’s summit, we launched our “Smart Rwanda Masterplan 2020” based on the Smart Africa manifesto. So, it means that we are aligning our plans to the manifesto of Smart Africa and each country that joins the alliance agrees to a number of things (at least three).
Firstly, they commit to elaborate a national digital plan that is aligned with the manifesto. Secondly, the Head of State picks an area of championship (Rwanda picked Smart Cities). And thirdly, the country agrees to join the one area network within six months of joining. If you’re looking for milestones and achievements, look at those three areas and you would find them everywhere. And example as far as Rwanda is concerned is we launched our Smart City Materplan and also a blueprint for Africa. Those are very clear milestones. And less than twenty four hours after launching the Smart City Materplan; we clinched a large scale investment of fifty million dollars to implement the plan. It means, it is not a piece of paper to put into the drawers. It is a living plan and the proof is in the pudding.
What is your perspective on Africa’s digital transformation? Has it been slow, rapid or of in-between, do we need some urgency?
The African digital transformation has not been rapid; it has been slow in the past. Let us be clear, we cannot say it has been rapid when we are not where we are supposed to be. If you look at the growth of the telecommunications sector, of course you would see that Africa is the fastest growing telecommunications market. But that is because we are starting very far behind and we are starting late and from a very low end. Of course, we have defied all odds and all the odds of the doubting Thomases, who said that the mobile industry would not take root in Africa because of security and governance but we have defied all the odds. We have surpassed targets that have been set and we have defied every pessimistic forecast when it pertains to the digital transformation of Africa. That said, I would not dwell on that success and I would not celebrate when we still have half a billion people not connected; when we still have internet penetration less than fifty percent; when we still have very low digital literacy. I would not look at that progress and celebrate. We know the story of digital financial inclusion; it has been a huge change across the Continent especially in the Eastern part of Africa but all these are good to show that we are in the right direction. Can we accelerate the pace? Absolutely; and that is where my focus is.
How has Kigali been able to transform into a Smart City in such a short time? And from your perspective, are there noticeable benefits?
I would say three things. Everything starts and ends with leadership. That is a story of President Kagame who defined that vision and followed through on its implementation. Secondly, it is connectivity. You cannot become a Smart City if people cannot go online; if the Internet is slow or non-existent or not affordable. So, everything was done to make sure that the whole country and not only Kigali is well served in terms of telecommunications. Thirdly, is innovation. Smart Cities require a lot of innovation, people need to be willing to try new things, and innovators need to be provided space to create solutions. Those three factors put together, amount to the rapid progress we have made. But I would also say that working together and collaboration between different departments of ICT, Roads etc, to formulate plans, so that there is a synergy.
How has the ongoing Smart City initiative in Kigali changed lives in the urban and specifically in the rural areas?
Smart City is for the urban. We are planning a different initiative called the Smart Village. The flagship that the President took is Smart Cities in Communities. The cities’ agenda has moved forward, so probably in2018, we would be talking about Smart Villages. What is happening in the villages is also very important and the digital transformation is not leaving the villages behind. But this year, we chose to focus on the Smart Cities. Also, the ongoing Smart City initiative has changed lives in the cities too. When you look at the service aspect, whether you are a business person or just a simple citizen, the fact that you can now access government services from the comfort of your home using your mobile phone twenty four hours and seven days a week; I think that is unprecedented and this all happened over the last one year. When you are able to remain jet and connected all the time and affordably, that is tremendous. When you look at mobility and public transport and how it is organised, you see the progress. Sometimes, people do not realise that a lot of smart planning and systems are behind the lack of chaos and the noticeable security, you see in the city. Behind all this, deliberate designs and interventions that shape what people see at the surface. A lot is under the surface that is not seen and ICT is playing a major role in that. So, safety, utilities, connectivity, productivity, excellence in service delivery; all that is backed by technology.
Can African countries truly leapfrog by utilising the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
They can and that is the only thing they should do. Trying to go through the old steps of industrialisation is just not going to work. Trying to compete with china in terms of manufacturing would not work. It is okay if we have a bit of it but not as a strategic initiative. We need to have it because it provides jobs, boost self-reliance but if we hope to lead in any area, it is not something where we need to play catch up and then move ahead of others. It should be where we can start with everyone else and then move faster. And since, we don’t have this legacy in terms of systems, hard investments, and then we can move much faster. An example is the drones in Rwanda. It is a typical Fourth Industrial Revolution Technology.
And we were able to do it faster than anyone else in the world. When you talk about blockchain, Internet of things, big data analytics, 3D printing etc and the convergence of those technologies (physical, biological and digital domains coming together), we can do it now in Africa, faster than anyone else. The thing is, do we understand it? Do we understand how important it is? Are we investing into it? Are we trying our training our people for it? These questions are important. If we are able to achieve all this and achieve importance; then we are on track. We have no lobbies that are against this transformation and disruption (disrupting against big industries in other countries might be very high because there is so much at stake). But there is nothing at stake here. What is at stake is people’s lives, development. So, we have have to go for it.
What other ICT related summits are taking place in Rwanda in 2017?
We have the Youth Connekt Africa and it would be all about youth and technology, empowerment and youth opportunities. It is really not focused on technology but one of the key areas to be covered is technology. And this is the summit that Jack Ma (the founder of Alibaba) would attend. We also have the Smart Rwanda Day in October 2017. This would be in its third edition. Again, we are looking at hosting as a parallel thread, a Rwanda-Nigeria ICT Summit. That is something that has been agreed (it has not been fully decided because we are still exploring options but it looks like it is possible to host that summit).
When is the next Transform Africa Summit?
The next Transform Africa Summit would take place from May 9-11, 2018.
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