After two consecutive years of recession triggered by the shocks associated with Cyclone Idai, drought and then the COVID-19 pandemic, Zimbabwe, which has entered a new “post-Mugabe” era, is returning to growth (2.8% in 2023). To accelerate the pace, the country is leveraging new technologies and its private sector. Never Ncube, head of Dandemutande, one of the country’s main Internet service providers, and chair of the Zimbabwe Internet Service Providers Association, discusses the country’s ambitions, assets and challenges.
Interview by Dounia Ben Mohamed
You run one of the leading telecommunications companies in Zimbabwe. How is the ICT sector developing in your country and what is your company’s position in this market?
Dandermutande is one of the eight Internet Access Providers (IAPs) registered by our regulator called POTRAZ. We are, by market share, the third largest IAP in Zimbabwe. We are also the largest VSAT operator with a 38% share of the total VSAT market.
What we are seeing in Zimbabwe is quite an aggressive adoption of technology in all sectors of the economy. This, in part, has been accelerated by COVID-19 which forced a lot of people to leave their offices and work from anywhere, thus triggering this now solidified trend. At the same time, COVID-19 also made people acutely aware of the fact that technology has indeed arrived, and how indispensable it has become. Overall, these factors have partly contributed to the increased uptake of different types of technologies, connectivity being chief among them as it enables people to work more effectively, in the office, remotely, virtually, or on the go.
Digital economy in Zimbabwe, which is one of the key drivers towards turning Zimbabwe into an upper-middle-class economy by 2030
As Internet Access Providers, we are playing a very leading role in enhancing access to technology. In the last three years, the internet penetration rate in Zimbabwe has grown from 61% to 62.2% as at the end of last year. This speaks directly to the adoption of technology which complements our government’s efforts towards the creation of a digital economy in Zimbabwe, which is one of the key drivers towards turning Zimbabwe into an upper-middle-class economy by 2030.
Therefore, this actually aligns with the national strategy that is driven by the Ministry of ICTs and all the players in the sector to make sure that Zimbabwe transforms itself, and that transformation will be driven by digital.
The strategy is broken into two phases. These are National Development Strategy One, ending in 2025, which will be succeeded by National Development Strategy Two, which will end in 2030.
The anchor for transforming Zimbabwe into a smart economy is driven by technology. So, you will see a lot of emphasis in smart agriculture, smart cities, smart mining, as well as tourism being also one of the key drivers of our economy in general.
Because of that deliberate effort at a national level, driven by the ministry and the regulator, we have seen a deliberate deployment of infrastructure such as base stations particularly in the underserved markets and rural areas to ensure that there is connectivity in those areas. On the regulatory side, the licensing framework has been expanded to include local players at the provisional and rural levels, allowing them to come in and offer services in just those underserved markets.
The biggest challenge in Zimbabwe has obviously been access to funding and foreign capital
The biggest challenge in Zimbabwe has obviously been access to funding and foreign capital. And that has been retarding the rate at which the infrastructure expands. As you know, Zimbabwe is not playing in a big way in the capital market. So, most of the projects are either funded from owned resources or by the government through subsidies for the rural areas in terms of infrastructure.
You’ll see that in our space, we have got two technology companies that are owned by the government. There is TelOne on the connectivity side and then there is also NetOne. NetOne on the cellular side. Through those two companies, the government has also been helping to make sure that there is deployment of infrastructure. The other aspect that has also been affecting the expansion of technologies and connectivity, is that Zimbabwe being a landlocked country has to get its international Internet through neighboring countries, like Mozambique and South Africa. So, the cost of connectivity is still high in the country. And this is one of the things that we are also working with, because despite the existence of wireless services, if the population cannot afford those services, then they will not be able to participate in that space.
Thirdly, as more people access the internet, cybersecurity automatically becomes a cause for concern. Our country signed up to the Malabo convention on cybersecurity three years ago. We also signed into law, a data protection act, which essentially provides for how we respond to cyber issues at a national level, how we put up cyberinfrastructure as well as how we make sure that there’s sufficient awareness around cybersecurity. So that’s also the other area that we’re looking at as a country.
You are also the chair of the Zimbabwe Internet Service Providers Association. Is the connection between the government and the private sector in this sector constructive? Are you being listened to? Are your suggestions being listened to?
Like I said, I chair this mobile internet access provider, which works closely with our regulator and seeks to assess how we can change the dynamics of the market regarding connectivity and technology. There is a real impact. We have got constant engagement between the private sector, the regulator, and the government through the Ministry of ICT. So, I think we have found common ground. We are all looking at the same problems, and we are all saying, how do we resolve those problems? How do we increase the capacity that is, how do we bring more bandwidth into the country? How do we get the unconnected connected? How do we lower the price of services? So those are the three issues that all three stakeholders, namely the private sector, regulator and government are looking at and saying, can we find solutions for these areas? If we do, we will then be able to uplift our economy and speak to the Vision 2030 of making Zimbabwe an upper middle-class economy by that year through the use of technologies.
You participated in Transform Africa, which was held at your home in Victoria Falls. What were your objectives and were they achieved?
What I have found interesting in “Transform Africa,” and it is obviously my first time attending it is that Transforming Africa will remain a true nod for all the African countries and in transform Africa. One of the key takeaways that I have is that it’s going to foster regional and continental collaboration, which is very key. And it is also going to harmonize the different strategies of different countries into one vision, which is the vision for Africa to be transformed.
The conversations that are done during this summit helped to find alignment at the national level with different presidents coming in, setting the tone, setting the vision, and also the different regulatory bodies within Africa also coming together and sharing notes and private sector as well.
To harmonize the different strategies of different countries into one vision, which is the vision for Africa to be transformed
Because we are here as the private sector, we are engaging our other colleagues from different markets. At the end of the day, Transform Africa is a mandate of digital inclusion to make sure that the technology that is available out there to accelerate growth is visible to all the different countries and shared. So, I find that as a very key thing to have events like this where those conversations are elevated, where collaboration amongst the different nations, among the different private sectors within Africa and also amongst the different regulators in Africa, are also put on the same table and experiences are also shared. So, it is a very fundamental objective whose time has arrived. Actually, if I may say that we should have done this earlier, but better late than never.
The Zimbabwean private sector was here. From the telecom sector, which is both Internet access and mobile telephone providers, all the CEOs were here except one for all the companies. And all of them are here with their teams. This speaks to the way that we talk to our Ministry of ICTs and our regulators. We needed to be here, and that’s why all of us came, to represent our country, promote our ICT sector and our companies.