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Spearheading ICT penetration

By Agnes E. Nantaba

James Saaka is the executive director of National Information Technology Authority Uganda (NITA-U). He spoke to Agnes E. Nantaba about how their mandate and other pertinent issues in the ICT sector.

What are the key elements in your management philosophy as a manager?

I have been at NITA-U for five years since inception in August 2010. We started the Authority right from scratch but we have managed to recruit all the staff and put in place all the systems and structures to ensure professional running of the institution.  The guiding principle is based on professionalism and working towards getting things right the first time. In terms of executing work, I fully delegate where I have efficient people to handle the task and be the overseer. In cases where I have to help, I fold my sleeves and get involved in order to achieve better results.

What is your assessment of the performance of the ICT sector in Uganda?

The sector is promising and we can do better. ICT generates a lot of revenue for the country especially the telecom companies and many people are employed by the same sector.  However when we look at the utilization of ICT in government, it’s only an indication that we can do a lot better than we are currently. At the moment, there are other current government priorities like roads, the standard gauge railway and dams among others and once they are accomplished, ICT will also be prioritized for financing.

What is your strategy towards meeting the mission of NITA-U to improve the performance of the contribution of ICT growth of the economy in Uganda?

NITA-U is a semi-autonomous agency.  The board was very instrumental in ensuring that we get a five-year strategic plan in place that clearly maps out the priorities and Key Performance Indicators to work with and achieve. The plan runs into the overall ICT strategic sector plan. My role therefore is to break down the strategic plan to the team and ensure that they work towards achieving the mandate. We use the KPIs to measure progress and determine the loopholes so we can address them.

How does NITA-U work to ensure data protection and privacy in the country especially on social media?

We still have a gap in this area but together with the ICT ministry, we jointly initiated the Data Privacy and Protection Act and the principles were approved by Cabinet. When completed, it will be forwarded to Parliament for enactment. It has delayed due to the election period demands but hopefully early next year, it will be passed into law.  This law will help to solve such issues of data protection and privacy.

Phase three of the National Backbone Infrastructure project was flagged off in March 2015. How far have you gone with work on the ground?

That project was intended to lower the internet bandwidth costs in the country and indeed, we lowered the internet bandwidth costs in government to around $300 per megabyte per month, which was the objective of the project.  We have now connected over 94 MDA locations so we are getting more ministries and government agencies connected to the NBI. We expect to accomplish it within nine months once it takes off this October. Phase three includes Kampala-Masaka-Mutukula, Masaka-Mbarara-Kabale-Katuna and Masindi-Kyenjonjo. Those routes are important because of the Albertine region, connecting to Rwanda and Tanzania as an alternative route to the submarine cables through Tanzania.

We don’t want to experience what happened during Kenya violent elections when the submarine cables were uprooted leaving us switched off for two days. It is helpful for the stability of internet in the country. We learned a lot from the previous phases, which we hope to utilize in this phase. It will play a big role in lowering the internet bandwidth price, which we expect to fall below $200.

Internet penetration in Uganda remains low, what is your role in growing the penetration levels?

When we run and maintain the National backbone infrastructure which goes around the entire country, private companies use excess capacity off it to provide services in the remote regions cheaply.  If the telecom companies have to invest and take fibre in those areas, it’s very costly to them in terms of investment, which is why we are working to provide an alternative.

How has the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) centre helped to reduce youth unemployment in Uganda?

Youth unemployment remains a big challenge in Uganda. There are youths who are graduates and those who have not studied at all. However, the BPO panacea is only for youths who have graduated at the level of University Degree in the various areas, which makes it interesting. Traditionally, BPO was understood to be call centres but now it goes further to for instance catering for accounting services, legal services to anybody across  the globe. That is using ICT for employment. We built the BPO Incubation Centre at Statistics House, which now employs more than 300 people. It is operated by private companies. Our plan is to build an ICT park in Entebbe under a Public Private Partnership so that we can create jobs for about 20,000 youths. On the other hand we use e-government to help citizens access government information and create jobs.

What is your projection for the ICT sector going forward?

We estimate the internet bandwidth cost will go below $100 because that will tremendously improve internet penetration and usage. It will also improve online usage and service delivery using ICT. Given that the majority of Uganda’s population are young people, we hope that ICT will employ more of them in the value chain.


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