political will

Rwanda, Malawi, Zimbabwe…Ensuring connectivity on the African continent

By Laura Angela Bagnetto

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Posted on May 30, 2023 12:30

Connecting rural areas of the African continent to the IT grid and ensuring they will have access to services and care was a hot topic at the Transform Africa summit in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe late last month. During the three-day conference, which hosted six presidents from Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Zambia, eSwatini, Malawi and Rwanda, speakers from Africa and Europe highlighted challenges and solutions to connectivity as the continent tries not to be left behind.

Connectivity in Rwanda, which is a majority agrarian country, has provided the setting for Irembo, the first company on the continent to digitise government documents in a unique manner. More than 100 services, including registering births, signing up for a driver’s licence, marriage licences and death certificates, are all available on the Irembo application.

The company, now headed by Israel Bimpe, is entirely ‘Made in Rwanda’, he tells The Africa Report on the sidelines of the conference.

“Irembo is entirely built in the country by local engineers, which means it’s also a significantly new experience to build technology that operates at such a scale with the needs that we have when it comes to government services,” he says.

The IT staff have built a full technology stack for service management that can be altered to the various needs of the government. Bimpe says that while they have more than 100 documents online, they would like to provide all government services, upwards of 1000, in the future.

“We have a national strategy for transformation, through which the government has committed to digitise all government services and make it accessible and seamless for citizens to access.”

Even for smallholder farmers

However, with 70% of the country working in agriculture, and many working as subsistence farmers, Bimpe acknowledges that not everyone owns a smartphone.

“We ensure that our platform and our services are accessible for anyone, regardless of their ability to access [the] internet, their ability to own a smartphone, or their digital literacy level,” he says, adding that Irembo addresses these challenges in two ways.

This young person who is working in their community using a computer is bringing their entire community on a digital realm

First, access is not only on a web platform for mobile phones or on an app for smartphones, but all basic cell phones with USSD capability for texting can be used to access documents.

The other way to facilitate access is to use a permanent network of more than 5000 agents across the country to help those who either do not have a phone (to access needed documents) or to show them how to use the system on their own phone.

“If a citizen wants to transfer their title to invest some money in a business, they can go see that agent, provide the papers, and the agent will fill out the applications on their behalf,” he says, adding that the applicant can still track the application to see if and when documents are approved.

Bimpe says that the system was put in place to bridge the digital literacy divide to ensure no one is left behind.

The agents are usually young people, who are already a fixture in every village and town, who sell mobile phone credit, and they receive a commission for every transaction, and each time they help someone access their data and documents.

“This young person who is working in their community using a computer is bringing their entire community on a digital realm,” he says.

“They are digital ambassadors of a sort, by helping people understand how to use the system. They really play […] quite an important role in the digitisation journey,” he says.

While there are currently a few glitches in the online system, Bimpe says that is all in a day’s work of optimising and building the technology better.

Cross-border cashless trade

Technology needs to be embraced more, particularly for cashless transactions, according to Lucy Nshuti Mbabazi, who is based in Kigali and is the head of Africa Advocacy and Partnerships at the UN’s Better Than Cash Alliance.

However, she says, people are wary of using technology on the African continent. “That’s the biggest hurdle we have,” Mbabazi tells The Africa Report at the Transform Africa summit.

“60% of transactions are consumer, but near[ly] 90% of that is conducted in cash. Imagine if we digitised that 60% of our expenditure, what it would do for our treasuries, what it would do for liquidity challenges that we have, what it will do to the interest rates,” she says.

It will be a great day when we see every market, every shop, even vendors walking on the street, accepting digital payments

Mbabazi maintains it would bring down the interest rate from a continental average of 19% to 7% if people were paid in cashless transactions. She has been tracking this phenomenon since the birth of M-pesa, the widely used Kenyan mobile financial payment system, that began around 2007.

While M-pesa is widely popular, more needs to be done, particularly with cross-border trade and purchases, she says. Cash used to be transported by a trusted person who would take a bus, but that is not safe.

“They have conducted market trading across borders for centuries, but they’re the most excluded communities, and yet they have the highest business propensity,” says Mbabazi.

“We cannot ignore these communities; I feel that they’re the biggest heartbeat of cross-border trade. It will be a great day when we see every market, every shop, even vendors walking on the street, accepting digital payments,” she says.

We do not have to look for dollars; our businessmen will concentrate on moving goods and services, and leave the arduous task of currencies to Afreximbank

Kenya’s President William Ruto gave a nod to cross-border vendors at a African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) meeting with government officials and the private sector members earlier this week, when he called for African countries to utilise the Pan-African Payments and Settlement System (PAPSS) launched in January last year. PAPSS was developed by both the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank) and the AfCFTA Secretariat.

“There has been a mechanism where all our traders can trade in the local currency and we leave it to the Afreximbank to settle all the payments,” he said.

“We do not have to look for dollars; our businessmen will concentrate on moving goods and services, and leave the arduous task of currencies to Afreximbank,” he said, hinting that the continent should move away from using the dollar.

Mbabazi maintains that there is work to be done, but the onus is on governments and regulators to create these financial services, because “the continent is still far away from moving from cash”.

Possible solutions… tomorrow

Mbabazi adds that the Pan-African payment systems could help solve this problem, but action and political will is required. In her capacity as the Africa lead for the UN cashless programme she has been talking to traders on the border of Zambia and other parts of Southern Africa, as well as the AfCTA secretariat to discuss a common cashless market.

While she maintains political will is definitely part of the overall plan, others experienced disconnect and spoke about it.

Malawi’s minister of information and digitalisation, Moses Kunkuyu, who accompanied his president, Lazarus Chakwera, to the summit, told the audience: “If we’re not working on policies and laws, we’re not going to do anything” in this realm.

He explained that when he needed to send some money to Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, he was told he couldn’t “because the network was down”.

When he asked why, he was told it was “because our leaders are here” at the conference.

“And the leaders were telling everyone that we support connectivity and what we are doing, but are they really supporting [it]?” he said as the audience laughed.

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