ICT4D – lagging behind is not always bad

Today’s blog post is written by Christian Wohlert. Christian Wohlert is a Bilateral Associate Expert in ICT4D seconded by Sida to the Ministry of Science and Technology in Mozambique. He is in charge of developing the Ministry’s Communication Strategy, which among many things aims to increase the interest for, and use of, science and technology in Mozambique. He also participates in the Ministry’s projects related to finding solutions to society’s problems through technology. He previously worked as a journalist in Brussels, Belgium.

From the terrace of the Ministry of Science and Technology in Maputo, Mozambique, it is pleasant to gaze out over the Maputo Bay in the afternoon with the sun setting in the distance. Whenever a new report on the use of ICT in the world is published, I enjoy that spot for some quiet reading. I usually start by looking for Mozambique in the rankings, and I almost always find it at the very end.

In the UN’s E-Government Survey, Mozambique is number 158 of 190 countries. In the International Telecommunication Union’s Development Index, Mozambique ranked 147 of 155. When looking at ICT stats, such as the share of Internet users in the population or the rate of mobile subscribers, Mozambique can often be found where the average African country was about five years ago.

So Mozambique lags behind many of the African ICT-hyped countries like Kenya, Tanzania or Uganda. But that isn’t necessarily altogether bad. Mozambique can draw advantage from this by learning from mistakes made in Kenyan projects, avoiding the Tanzanian pitfalls and implementing the Ugandan success stories (tweaked to Mozambique’s unique conditions) and so forth.

A few thousand miles north of the Maputo Bay, far below the surface of the Indian Ocean, large gas reserves will start being exploited in a few years. That raises hope for a continued high growth in the country, which today is around seven percent per year—most of it due to the so called megaprojects involving aluminum, mining and coal industries. The challenge is to spread that growth to other industries as well, such as the growing ICT sector.

In February the first Hackathon ever in Mozambique was held in Maputo and the organizers were somewhat nervous about the turnout. The expectations varied from 5 to 30 attendees. In the end more than 50 participants worked together for two days to create apps for sectors like education, health and business. One of the apps was targeted to the major gas companies and would make measuring and reporting of gas usage more efficient. Whether that will be a success or not is yet to be seen, but the activity, interest and skills among the young programmers showed clearly that there is an untapped potential for the ICT sector in Mozambique. At the Ministry of Science and Technology we aim to encourage young people to choose ICT related programs at the universities and raise the skills level overall in the society.

Then again, it is not all about skills and technology. According to an ICT report from a big international organization, it is now possible to pay your taxes online in Mozambique. However, I am still to meet a person that has done that. And even if it was possible, the people I talk to say they wouldn’t trust such a system.

– People think it’s safer to go in person to the counter and pay the taxes, where they can see that the money reaches its destination, as a friend of mine put it while we were driving by the Ministry of Finance the other day.

However, there is (anecdotal) evidence that can convey a different story. Nadean Szafman at mKesh, the first mobile money service in the country, tells me that in pilot projects in the north of Mozambique communities have been able to build that trust rather quickly. The local population exchanged the traditional system of using a common cash box for the use of mobile money, and thereby if not eliminating, at least strongly limiting, the use of cash and at the same time increased the possibilities for local people to get loans. It goes to show that the ICT4D sector can indeed be a helpful tool in a country that is poor in economic terms, but rich with resources, ideas and people that want to bring about important change, step by step.

Christian Wohlert

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