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Technology

ICT: An Important Tool in Poverty Reduction

A survey commissioned by DENIVA (Development Networks of Indigenous Voluntary Associations) and I-Network (Information Network) in May - June 2007, in Uganda, has shown a close link between ICT and poverty reduction. The countrywide survey indicates that developments of ICTs tend to increase income inequality within a country and it requires relatively good education and special skills to make full use of it.

 

The findings showed that overall there was an increase in the use and application of ICTs in rural and urban areas. This was correlated by previous studies and was found to be due to various factors like, the favorable policy environment, reduction of tariffs on electronics, increase in use and availability of refurbished computers, affordable costs of new electronic equipment, and the increase in the number of NGOs and private sector initiatives. Internet use is positively correlated with the levels of socioeconomic development, including the purchasing power of individuals, the availability of information technologies and telecommunication infrastructures.

 

The liberalization of the acquisition, use and application of ICT has led to a rapid expansion of the ICT industry in Uganda. Various technologies have been adopted and these include cellular and mobile telephones, networks, mobile radio communication, paging services, courier services and multi-purpose community tele-centres. There has also been an expansion of print media as well as an increased number of private radio and television stations.

 

In Uganda, the national ICT policy framework approved by Cabinet in December 2003 envisions a country where national development, especially human development and good governance are sustainably enhanced, promoted and accelerated by the efficient application and use of ICTs including timely access to information.

 

In the study on telecentres, access and development, there had been an increase in phone use in Uganda between 1996 to 2003. In urban areas landline telephone use was at 63.4% while in rural areas it was at 27.5%. This increase in use of telephones can be attributed to the expansion of GSM cellular networks, public fixed phones, public phone booths and public access through fixed wireless which is the most common and affordable.

 

Fax in contrast to other ICTs in the rural area carried low use at 8.4%. Use of the fax is mainly related to the formal workplace especially in interacting with formal institutions like banks, donors, government offices, and parent institutions.

 

In a comparative study done by Paul Tiyambe Zeleza in East Africa, most specifically in Kenya and Uganda, between December 2000 to February 2005, available data indicates that Uganda had 125,000 internet users from 40,000 in December 2000, entailing a growth rate of 212.5% and a penetration rate of 0.5 % in 2005. Uganda formed 1% of the internet users on the continent in 2005 and was ranked 13th in Africa. The most recent internet usage statistics (September 2007) indicate that Uganda with an estimated population of 28,574,909 now has 750,000 internet users. The penetration rate grew from 0.5% in 2005 to 2.6% in 2007. On the continental rating, from 1% of internet users, the percentage has risen to 1.7%. The growth rate by September 2007 was at 1,775% from 212.5% in 2005.

 

In this survey, use of internet/email in communicating with like minded organizations was 58.2%, communicating with affiliated member NGOs was 42.8%, with parent organization (38.6%) and interoffice or business at 30.5%.

 

Generally, there has been growth of ICT infrastructure in Uganda. In a study by Kintu Fred et al on early lessons from ICT projects in Uganda, from 1996 to 2004 the growth in the number of fixed telephone lines had risen from 46,000 to 71,272. More impressively, mobile phone subscribers increased from 3,500 to an incredible 987,456 in the same period. The government also planned to award service agreements to three or more internet service providers to render universal internet access services (through Internet Points of Presence) in 32 designated districts. However the number of telecommunications providers has also increased since 2004.

 

The growth in the ICT sector is but one aspect of Uganda's impressive first steps into what some call "the new economy," the knowledge and information economy. It is also essential to understand the various ways in which projects or experiences using ICTs can have an impact on the most important aspects of Ugandan life: governance, education, health and livelihood.

 

ICT is an important catalyst for social transformation and national progress. Disparities in levels of ICT readiness and usage could translate into disparities in levels of productivity and hence, different rates of economic growth. It is also important to observe that ICTs can lead to economic growth.

 

Providing access to rural areas is a big challenge generally in Uganda. On the supply side, limiting factors include infrastructure, maintenance, equipment supplies, staff capacity and transport while on the demand side they include money, and awareness on how these services can be used to improve livelihoods.

 

The role of cultural factors including language cannot be overlooked in the development and impact of ICTs especially the internet. The dominance of European languages, especially English has been a limiting factor in the growth of internet use in many parts of Africa. In this sense the internet excludes not only the illiterate but those with low English literacy levels. The question of language must be taken seriously and is part of the larger question of the cultural content of ICT products and services.

 

There is no question that the full potential of the internet for Africa will only be realized if indigenous languages are incorporated. If the development of local content is left to software developers, this will result in loss of control and ownership over the language, as software and hardware designers set new protocols of linguistic standardization as is already happening to some languages in several parts of the world.

 

There has been little success so far on relevant content in African languages related to African issues on the World Wide Web. In rural areas and poor urban areas of Uganda, education levels are low and many people use their traditional languages. Local content and local language application on the internet may become more important in the coming years as access to ICTs in rural areas improve. It is therefore important that organizations develop strong documentation practices both in English and local languages.



By Pius Sawa Murefu
Journalist, Uganda


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