THE 2006 World Economic Forum’s Global Information Technology report ranked Zimbabwe last among Southern African economies that are developing
Information and Communication Technology (ICT).
The Harvard scale of ICT usage was employed in determining grades and Zimbabwe was rated 2,4 on a scale of five.
Moreover, the sector is still on stage 2 of the HUG scale which is a model used by Harvard University to measure ICT development level of a country.
The low rating seems to fly in the face of the initiatives that government claims to have taken in order to enhance the development of ICTs in Zimbabwe.
The question then is how that National ICT policy framework in September could make Zimbabwe’s position better on the ICT development ratings?
While the government’s move can be viewed by many as positive, more certainly needs to be done to improve the political and economic environment for ICTs to develop.
The government’s position on ICTs, on a verbal note, exposes its determination to do so.
“Zimbabwe will be counted among other developing countries that have embraced ICTs and whose people’s lives have been transformed by the development of communication technologies,” Information minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu was quoted as saying in a local daily.
What is left is the government’s commitment to see to it that such a proposition won’t lie idle like many polices that fell short of implementation.
Much has been said about President Mugabe’s sourcing and distribution of computers in schools and the rural electrification programme that the government has embarked on.
Some quarters have applauded that as a huge promotion for ICTs in Zimbabwe.
Given the present political and economic challenges the country is facing, it is highly unlikely such an endeavour will yield positive results for ICT development unless urgent measures are taken to improve some areas.
Zimbabwe has limited access to ICTs owing to several reasons.
A Zimbabwe e-readiness survey report 2005 says ICTs access is hampered by high tariffs for using the infrastracture and ICT services.
Zimbabwe relies heavily on imported electricity. The power generated locally is not able to meet the demand, the report said.
The report says the legal framework is another major threat to the development of the ICT sector.
Critics have noted with concern that provisions of the Broadcasting Services Act of Zimbabwe and the Interception of Communication Act pose a huge threat to the development of ICTs.
The Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe is also the biggest impediment to the development of ICTs.
Zimbabwe’s regulatory bodies lack coherent policy framework to guide the ICT sector, the e-readiness report said.
“While Zimbabwe has committed itself to fulfilling the TRIPS Agreement, it lacks cyber laws in its legal framework to address e-commerce issues such as on-line contracts and digital signatures” the report said.
“Like any other country, for example USA has the Patriot Act. The problem comes on the interpretation and implementation of the laws, with some laws having been applied impartially,” said Brian Mukudzavu, a local ICT expert.
Some have criticised the defective application of the law by the regulatory bodies.
Critics say BAZ and Protraz were not functioning properly because of political interference.
They said the two organisations have shown that government is not interested in reforming the laws that govern communication and ICTs in Zimbabwe.
“The government considers the telecommunications as a strategic industry and that’s why it took so long for government to issue mobile operating licenses to independent players.”
Mukudzavu said Zimbabwe’s laws don’t outrightly promote the development of ICTs,
He said so far BAZ had not issued a license to independent radio players even though it was established to do specifically that.
“Licensing should be done taking convergence into divergence as the case with Zimbabwe at the moment,” said Mukudzavu.
There is concern in business circles that investors will continue to shun Zimbabwe and opt for other neighbouring countries like South Africa and Botswana because of their investor friendly laws.
Botswana has already embarked on extensive public consultation to liberalise its communication related industries and move towards convergence.
The ICTs sector has also been affected by the inflationary environment. Products such as mobile phone lines are scarce and most find their way onto the black market where they are sold at exorbitant prices.
International renowned IT companies have left the country because of the economic problems.
“IBM and Microsoft left the country because the economy is not performing but that in itself cannot be an excuse for not excelling in the field of ICTs,” said Mukudzavu.
Skilled IT personnel are also leaving the country for neighbouring countries like Namibia, South Africa and Botswana.
“Companies are no longer investing in training of staff in fear of losing them to brain drain,” said a director with a local ICT distribution company.
Tafadzwa Nyoni, a Zimbabwean IT expert based in Namibia, said he left the country because of the underperforming economy. He felt he was also not growing professionally because of the lack of development in the sector.
“I could not continue to live on peanuts while I am aware of the value of my potential in IT which is well respected in Namibia when it comes to remuneration” he said.
Zimbabwe also has high levels of piracy in the ICT sector. There is need to increase the bandwidth. Mukudzavu, made an appeal to ISPs not to charge people using local traffic and try to do mirroring of international websites.
The e-readiness report also suggested recommendations that if applied could help in the development of ICTs.
Appropriate policy interventions, the report said, could be established to ensure ICTs are fairly made available to disadvantaged groups and rural communities.
The tariff structure could be rationalised to make it more affordable to subscribers, the report said.
There is need to “encourage full utilisation of existing communication infrastructure in order to minimize underutelised capacity which constitutes wastage of investment resources” the report stated.
While there is a strong consensus that the recommendations in the e-readiness report are important in developing ICT in Zimbabwe, analysts say the declining economic and political environment will continue to impact negatively on the sector.
Hungwe is the chief photo-journalist for the Zimbabwe Independent.