Although the state owned communications companies have since been handed back to him, control of the spying department and the TransMedia Corporation, which provides signal distribution services for broadcasters, has been hived off to ZANU PF ministers. Chamisa also lays out his ambitious plan for the development of ICT in the country, which would enable ‘our herdsmen in rural areas to be able to phone each other across mountains enquiring about lost cattle’.
Lance Guma: Hello Zimbabwe and welcome to another edition of Behind the Headlines. My guest this week is Nelson Chamisa, the Minister of Information, Communication and Technology in the current coalition government. Mr Chamisa, thank you for joining us.
Nelson Chamisa: OK thank you, how are you?
Lance: I’m OK Mr Chamisa. Now firstly the principals to the unity agreement have agreed to leave your ministry intact after Mugabe had unilaterally taken the communications sector away from you. Now aside from the interception of communications which has been hived off to the ministry of transport, are you relieved the matter has been settled?
Chamisa: Well yes. You must also remember that I’m supposed to be in charge of Trans-media and broadcasting but you’ll see that those have already been given to Media, Information and Publicity so it was a question of an amicable and compromise position in terms of resolving this issue. I’m reasonably satisfied but of course I would hope that in the interests of the country and in the interests of the people of Zimbabwe and indeed the continent we need to move with the trends to the convergence of broadcasting and telecoms into what is called the ICT, its imperative.
Lance: There are a lot of people who feel that Zanu-PF and Mugabe have given with one hand while taking with the other. Is there a feeling that this is what they have done?
Chamisa: Well not necessarily, I mean this is part of a process. The ICT’s are basically supposed to be dealing with all the technology that have to do with the dissemination of information and the transaction of communication and these obviously range from your TV sets, your radio, your gadget hardware, issues to do with the software that enables that to be possible, issues around your mobile, storage of information on the iPod, you talk about devices the iPhone, even the platforms and applications like Twitter, FaceBook.
All these applications are very crucial to understand in the context of the global trend but I must say that in Zimbabwe we are lagging behind so even in terms of the appreciation from a paradigmatic point of view of what we are trying to do in the ICT, there wasn’t that appreciation so I feel that yes, we are moving forward and you know that the walls of government aren’t usually that fast I’ve no doubt that in the shortest possible time we should be able to have the convergence like what is the case in other countries.
Lance: Before I move to your plans in terms of the development of ICT, I just have one more question. Is there any particular reason why the MDC felt retaining control of these spying functions previously under your ministry was not important? There’s a general worry that Zanu-PF will abuse this.
Chamisa: Well like I said, this is an inclusive government. It is a creature of compromise, a creature of a diluted vision of the MDC and therefore we did not get things the way we want them. It is not the ideal but the reality is that what we have is basically what is attainable and achievable within our own situation and context and I’ve no doubt that the issue of spying is a thorn in the flesh for the people of Zimbabwe. I know the controversies around, the discomfort around that piece of legislation but we must appreciate that such is the situation with our compromise circumstances and we would want to obviously find an amicable way forward. Spying and snooping people’s phones I don’t think is something that is quite necessary in the long run.
Lance: You’ve laid out an ambitious plan in terms of the development of ICT in the country and at one time you were quoted as saying: “You want the herdsmen in the rural areas to call each other about their lost cattle”. Now a proper ICT framework means opening up of democratic space, do you think your colleagues in Zanu-PF are ready and will embrace this easily?
Chamisa: We have one government and that government is an inclusive government with its different shades of political opinion and I’ve no doubt that whatever decisions we do, they are done in the context of collective responsibility and collective accountability. The policies that we have enunciated and articulated in the 100 day programme are policies that have been endorsed by cabinet, by the entire cabinet, in fact the entire government, both Zanu-PF and MDC have adopted our programme. It’s not a Chamisa programme neither is it an ICT ministry programme per se. It is a government of Zimbabwe programme particularly the Short Term Emergency Recovery Programme document and also the 100 day plan.
So the various benchmarks and yardsticks we have set ourselves, are those which we feel are attainable and are for the good of the country both from a democratic space point of view and also from a reconstruction point of view because what we need to do is obviously to have time for reconstruction, its time for building. We need to make sure that we come together to build our country and of course from my point of view I don’t see impossibilities, I see possibilities. I don’t see obstacles, I see opportunities. I don’t see challenges, all I see is success and I have no doubt that we are going to make it even within the context of the inclusive government.
Lance: A few months ago you instructed POTRAZ to issue Econet with a licence for their 3G service, a lot of excitement in the industry, what has been the progress so far of this particular initiative?
Chamisa: Well it was not just for Econet. You see the 3G licence authority to be on the 3G platform is a licence that goes to all the various operators, Net One, Telecel and Econet and this 3G platform is basically in sync with our vision to make sure that the internet is accessible to all and internet is available for use to all at very affordable prices and also at reasonable speeds. Our challenge at the moment is that we have a big, big problem with the issue of infrastructure and we are dealing with the infrastructure by building a national backbone that is dependable and reliable, making sure that we have fibre optic cables across the whole country so that our networking is enhanced and also even e-commerce in government, all the other platforms, your e-agriculture, e-medicine, e-health they are going to be on the back of an effective national infrastructure, or national backbone. So that’s the first point. The second point obviously the one you are talking about, the issue of access and use, what has been called by the world economic forum through their network Digital Access index.
The issue of intensity, the issue of impact, the issue of efficient and effective use of ICT, is only possible when we have such services like the 3G, when we have such services like the 4G in other countries but of course for our own circumstances would want to make sure that we have broadband facilities, we roll out WiMax in some cases WiFi to make sure that the entire country is wireless zoned or what we call wireless enabled and we would want to make sure that we have access to the internet everywhere, wherever you are in Zimbabwe.
I was jokingly saying to a particular audience but when you touch down at Harare International airport you get disconnected which is quite an antithesis because in other countries when you touch down maybe at the Heathrow or even at Oliver Tambo in South Africa, you actually get connected so we have to reverse even the kind of arrangements that we made in March that we are number 132 out of the 134 countries in the league of Bolivia, Bangladesh and Ethiopia, we want to make sure that we move up the ladder to be in the top ten of ICT facilities because of the smartness of our people, because of our capacity as a people and because our engineers, our skilled manpower are in New Zealand, London, Washington, even on the African continent, they are dotted everywhere, we want to make sure that those services are availed to our people for the betterment of our country.
Lance: The issue of high tariff charges pegged in foreign currency by the service providers under your ministry’s and others, particularly Net One, Tel One and others continues to be a thorn in the flesh for many customers, how is the government handling this in view of most civil servants earning 100 US dollars a month?
Chamisa: Well I’m very conscious of the debilitating effect of high tariffs in terms of business viability, productivity and even the uptake of ICT because each time you have a high increase in the prices that affect the output of ICT I am quite conscious of the challenges we are facing. In fact it has been observed through the London School of Business that for every ten percentage increase in the subscriber base, it’s actually a point six percentage contribution to the gross domestic product.
What it means is that if we are going to have that uptake high because we reduce the tariffs we then have to go volumetric, we increase the issue of volumes, we will be able to recoup the kind of costs they would want to recoup just by charging people very extortionate prices so I’m actually engaging the operators as well as POTRAZ the regulatory authority to say yes, they have indicated that they have reduced their prices from for example 30 cents per unit, and a unit has got about three minutes, to about 21 cents which is basically seven cents per minute.
That again is still very huge because when one looks at the average, because of the termination rates it will remain at 17 cents per minute, that is not achievable and that is not affordable for a lot of our people. Particularly when one looks at the parity, the regional parity, we need to reduce our prices and that is a message we’re carrying through and I’m going to enforce that. What has been clouding and cluttering that drive has been this gadfly of people disputing mandates and everything and this was really causing problems in terms of us, effecting certain decisions in the interests of business, the public and even the government. So we are hopeful of moving speedily in terms of resolving that will be a thing of the past because we can’t be talking about tariffs, we can’t be talking about non-availability of sim cards or the very exorbitant prices people are paying for sim cards.
Those are issues that are very close to my heart particularly Mr Guma, when one looks at the World Cup which is supposed to be providing a window, of a boost in productivity, a boost in our economic capacity and even our capacity utilisation in the various sectors of our economy, we need the ICT to be the driver, to be the enabler, to be the locomotive industry in terms of the multiplier effect in other industries booming and also getting this dynamic mode.
Lance: Is not another solution Mr Chamisa bringing in new players to give these guys competition to force prices down?
Chamisa: Well competition is good but you must also understand that we are also emerging from very difficult disasters, a cataclysmic situation where almost everyone is in a state of what I would call economic catatonia. The people virtually failing to move because of the circumstances that they were in, you know there’s a liquidity crunch in the country so we also need to help the existing operators in terms of giving them the breathing space so that we see they’re not able to meet the demand.
If they fail to meet the demand after a particular window period we have given to them, then we will have to look at the options of bringing in competition from outside but we don’t want to just bring competition so that we then kill other companies which have really patriotically managed to hold fort under difficult circumstances. So we need to make sure that yes, we respond to the demand but manage the demand in a sustainable manner and in a manner that is not seen to be dumping those who really tried to serve the country under difficult circumstances.
Lance: That was Nelson Chamisa, the minister of Information, Communication and Technology joining us on Behind the Headlines. Mr. Chamisa thank you so much for your time.
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