July 24, 2018

The African digital strategy — A vision for Zimbabwe

The oddest part about being a Zimbabwean millennial is that for your benefit you grew up having to look beyond Zimbabwe to achieve any form of a normal livelihood. This is still largely a present and painful reality, families, remain scattered across the world, torn apart by circumstances that merely happened to them. Despite that which we had no control or say over, I’m happy to say in our post-Mugabe dispensation; I can see Zimbabwe through a different lens — contentious point at varying degrees depending on who you talk to. But what is crucial if anything is where Zimbabweans once had to look elsewhere for a secure future, today I look at Zimbabwe and how it can secure a sustainable future that closes a chapter to its past.

While I can point to a desperate need to end the many ailments plaguing Zimbabwe including; an end to the cash crisis, a decrease in unemployment, stable price indices, infrastructural upgrades and their surrounding services, improved social welfare programs and growth in enterprise. I believe one of the key strands current and future governments should focus on is an establishing a digital strategy.

Before I get into why this is a pivotal area, it is to be acknowledged that the digital space can get diverse very quickly. Therefore pinning down a palpable definition is important and for that, I’ll outline what I believe is one of the better ways in which we can define what “digital” is.

Digital in this context should be seen less as a thing and more a way of doing things in governance. As a rule of three this “way of doing things” should:

  • Create value at the new frontiers of society.
  • Create value in the existing processes that serve the public.
  • build foundational capabilities that will, in turn, support the entire structure. More from Digital McKinsey.

Zimbabwe like many of its African counterparts suffers from being a contributor and not an administrator to the world economy. The situation you’ll find across the continent is best illustrated by the production of cocoa. It’s possible to find a region that produces about 75% of the world’s cocoa yet accounting for only 5% of the nearly $100 billion annual chocolate market. This far from ideal picture tells the story of a continent with vast natural resources, but it’s role as contributor leaves it at the mercy of commodity prices and ultimately a rather unsustainable future. In modernizing African economies participation in more than primary extractive industries is critical and an equally important area to be considered is digital technologies. Digital technologies like the internal combustion engine at the end of the 19thcentury (2nd industrial revolution) are responsible for enabling the 4thindustrial revolution where new products and services are emerging at an unprecedented rate, and entire industries are being disrupted. People across the world are also more connected than before and tying these pieces together is fast becoming an economic asset rather than just something that can’t be harnessed for more comprehensive economic value. With this in mind, there are three key pillars where a Zimbabwean digital strategy can hone in on to create value in new frontiers, enhance existing ones and build foundations to reinforce this value chain.

Government as a service

The consumer journey to acquire even the most basic public services in Zimbabwe either requires a strong network of inside agents or patience that will forgo all opportunity costs till your need is met. Problem is these service providers have it the wrong way around it’s not a service but rather just a backlog fulfillment process. This bottle-necked service structure exists in most if not all public services from company registry to any official certification (births, passports e.t.c). Aside from me offering a technological solution, it’s clear that a change management process to encourage a new culture must also be part of addressing these inefficiencies.

The case for establishing a digital government as a service (GAAS) is clear and it begins with computerising and designing common infrastructure to place all government services online.

The second step of this journey is moving to a single integrated platform for public service delivery. With the aid of a clear government as a service roadmap, the lowest hanging fruit, to begin with, is starting with is an online tax and revenue service (the one thing many if any are not exempt from). Using a unique identification process from this initial service, citizens will then be able to utilize a single identity across numerous future public services earmarked in the GAAS roadmap.

The resulting digital efficiencies from an overall adoption of GAAS are greater insights through wider access to data such as processing times for activities, the types of needs visitors have and applied data analytics to enhance service delivery. Partnerships with the private sector whose survival has depended on achieving such digitization will be key as experiences and technologies can be leveraged. This will hallmark the type of governance we’ve failed to realise in Zimbabwe yet can see the desperate need for. In many ways government services in Zimbabwe are viewed as a hinderance, we don’t consider them in the realms of having a responsive approach to service design let alone proactive.

Drive for a digital economy

The digital economy like any monetary economy is an environment where governments enable the public and business to have the necessary connectivity to interact with it and the skills to participate in it. Simply put the governments’ mandate on driving the digital economy should seek to:

  • increase access to the internet
  • implement policy that seeks to utilize digital technologies for the benefit of the public and business to encourage new channels of value
  • increase the digital literacy of citizens thereby investing into the utilization of digital technology

With Zimbabwean internet penetration rate firmly around 49.5% since 2016, one can’t deny the echoes of stagnation this suggests and it’s these important junctures where a clear mandate counts. At the time when the coverage of UK’s internet and mobile infrastructure development was favoring only areas of high population, the telecommunications and postal industries regulator Ofcom managed to bring in a legally binding obligation among the UK’s major mobile operators to reach at least 90% landmass coverage by a set period. It’s interesting to contrast this inclusive regulatory environment with the brand of regulation we see in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwean regulatory environments often resemble two sides moving in opposite directions where progressive business is often penalized for inexplicable reasons and anti-business directives are issued at a moments notice. Recently the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe banned all cryptocurrency activity in the country on the basis that cryptocurrencies present a viable opportunity for money launders and criminals. While partially true, the mobile phone can be used by criminals in various ways however that doesn’t mean we should ban them! It’s more to do with understanding technologies and finding ways to increase their utility and safety to people. Ironically 96% of payments in Zimbabwe in 2018 are in virtual currency, the mastery of cryptocurrency and decentralized systems could break ground if measures are taken to nurture these activities.

Rwanda today stands in a new light compared to the bleak divided picture it looked just around the time I was born in 1993. What has largely driven Rwanda out of this was the commitment to strategic planning since 2001 when the National Information and Communications Infrastructure (NICI) plan was introduced and has consequently evolved to a vision of becoming a middle-income country by 2020 and a knowledge economy driven by technology by 2050. It’s through careful planning and translating the vision of each phase of a strategic plan into actions that has led Rwanda to establish an innovation hub to develop the private sectors and has resulted in likes of Carnegie Mellon university opening a local campus. The ability to see through such policies leads me to my next point.

The initial push of increasing digital literacy to develop a digital economy creates a culture that sustains learning well into the future and these are principles that apply for any economy involving the transfer of value. Something as simple as wide coverage of coding clubs plants these very seeds. What doesn’t benefit the public are the vague information centers we see being set up around the country, to date we don’t know what strategic plan or purpose these fall under or why they’re important to direct taxpayer money to. This further reinforces my point of implementing a clear policy with the intention of maximizing the benefit to the public and enterprise as opposed to the fragmented approach to governance seen not only in the digital space but other areas in need of attention. With growing figures such as 79% of new job postings in the US requiring basic digital skills such as mastery of spreadsheet processing, this is a future that can’t be avoided.

Once policies to implement the utilization of digital technologies are in place thus driving the digital economy, signs of osmosis where the initial skills developed will begin to manifest themselves in wider parts of society. After Kenya implemented its IT policy in 2006 to be an ICT-driven society it was no surprise to see points in a society where new technologies converging with the some of the most traditional businesses. Agricultural post-harvest losses are estimated to be between 30-50% of the food grown in Africa, and yet agriculture accounts for 77% of all self-employment in Sub-Saharan countries. This created the perfect storm for Nairobi-based start-up Twiga Foods is using a mobile platform linked to M-PESA and big data analytics to restructure the farm-to-market supply chains for produce. By aggregating data from their customers and organizing distribution to retailers based on their needs, Twiga’s platform has helped to reduce these post-harvest losses and helping farmers to accurately match pricing to supply and demand. This perfectly demonstrates how technology can play a vital role in Africa becoming more than just a contributing partner to the world economy but an administrative stakeholder in future.

Effective measures to secure the cyberspace

The inherent risk of opening services up to the public through the web and growing the populace’s access and capability to interact with it is the increased attraction to compromise systems and data. It is, therefore, a critical need to secure technology, data, and networks to keep enterprises, public services and citizens protected.

Along with setting an IT security policy that guarantees confidentiality, integrity, and availability of information systems across the country, taking practical steps that aim to defend and develop security in the cyberspace is also of equal importance. An interesting take in defending the cyberspace is considering cyber attacks no different to physical attacks that an outfit such as the military or one similar to the military has the skills monitor and react to. UK, for example, will invest £1.9 billion over the next five years into cybersecurity and has created National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) to be the authority on the cybersecurity environment, sharing knowledge, addressing systemic vulnerabilities and providing leadership on key national cybersecurity issues. The path a digital strategy takes in regards to this it must follow a framework that not only deals with the practical elements of the subject but also provides legislation for data usage and protection. Lastly at a basic level below are the key areas a framework as aforementioned should cover:

  • Identifying and protecting critical information structures
  • Strengthening of IT security within the public authorities
  • Developing an authoritative Central Cyberdefence Centre that can defend, deter and continues to develop technologies and practices to meet future demands
  • Establishing a national Cyber Security Council

As I look to Zimbabwe securing a sustainable future, it is without a doubt that; government as a service, the digital economy and securing the cyberspace can play a vital part in its digital journey. However as mentioned digital isn’t a thing like an infrastructure but more so a culture that identifies value and seeks to maximize it. The methodology of laying out these strategies can be debated but the one thing that is clear is the growing effect of the 4th industrial revolution’s effect on economies and societies, therefore Africans should be prepared for that.

Thank you for reading, welcome to comment, question and correct! 🙂

Originally posted on Medium 

John 15:11


Gwinyai is an investment banking business analyst, has a love for sustainable business all things Africa and all things digital. He is also part time content creator because HEY! the world is too full of ideas of other men/women.

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