China’s Collaboration Propels Uganda’s Internet Revolution: A Tale of Technological Transformation

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By Yasiri J. Kasango

In recent years, Uganda has embarked on a journey towards digital transformation, with a strategic partnership with China serving as a catalyst for revolutionising the nation’s internet landscape. This collaboration, driven by a vision to bridge the digital divide and foster inclusive growth, has become a beacon of connectivity, propelling Uganda towards a future defined by innovation and economic prosperity.

At the core of Uganda’s digital revolution lie the monumental National Data Transmission Backbone Infrastructure (NBI) and Electronic Government Infrastructure (EGI) projects, spearheaded by China’s Huawei Technologies. This transformative initiative has witnessed the laying of fiber optic cables across Uganda, connecting major towns and government entities into a cohesive digital network. Funded in part by a $106 million loan from the Export-Import Bank of China, this infrastructure backbone has laid the foundation for Uganda’s digital future, facilitating seamless connectivity and enabling access to vital online services.

Dr. Aminah Zawedde, the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance, highlighted the significant progress made in Uganda’s telecommunications and ICT industries. In January 2024, Uganda boasted 13.3 million internet users, with an internet penetration rate of 27 percent. Dr. Zawedde emphasised that such advancements accelerate Uganda’s digital transformation agenda, improving communication and reducing the cost of doing business.

Moreover, the launch of Uganda’s Digital Transformation Roadmap in August 2023, anchored on the Uganda Vision 2040, underscores the country’s commitment to harnessing the abundant opportunities within the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector. The roadmap aims to strengthen the implementation of enabling policies and laws to accelerate Uganda’s Digital Revolution, providing an overarching framework for a well-connected Uganda that leverages various technologies.

The Ministry of ICT and National Guidance’s implementation of the NBI/EGI project has been instrumental in connecting major towns and government departments to an optical fiber cable-based network. Dr. Zawedde noted that over 12,000 kilometers of optical fiber cable have been laid across the country, laying the groundwork for further expansion and connectivity.

“Through this project, the laying of over 12,000 km of optical fiber cable across the country has been achieved,” said Zawede.

China’s technical and financial support has been pivotal in accelerating Uganda’s ICT development, according to Ugandan experts and officials. Kwame Rugunda, chairman of the Blockchain Association of Uganda, highlighted the critical role played by Chinese companies in establishing the core infrastructure of ICT. He emphasised the importance of continued collaboration and support from China for Uganda’s technological advancement.

“The core infrastructure of ICT is where the Chinese play a critical role, the backbone upon which everything else is built,” said Kwame Rugunda, chairman of the Blockchain Association of Uganda, in a recent interview with Xinhua.

John Nasasira, head of a national task force advising the government on emerging technologies, stressed the importance of connectivity across the country for leveraging ICT as an enabler for economic development. Nasasira emphasised Uganda’s reliance on technical expertise from countries like China as it strives to develop its ICT infrastructure.

Robin Bai, Chief Technical Officer of ZTE Uganda, discussed Uganda’s progress in adopting 3G and 4G technologies, with plans underway to launch 5G technology trials. Bai highlighted the role of Chinese companies in advancing Uganda’s ICT capabilities and bridging the digital divide.

In rural Uganda, where internet penetration remains relatively low, initiatives like Huawei’s DigiTruck project are making significant strides in promoting digital inclusion and empowerment. The DigiTruck, a mobile training hub, travels across regions, training youth, women, and small business owners in e-commerce and online research. Sandra Apio, a young farmer in the Katakwi District, expressed optimism about accessing online markets for her produce, thanks to the digital skills she acquired through the DigiTruck program.

“I am proud to say that the Huawei DigiTruck project plans to benefit over 10,000 people in a span of three years,” Yi Junsong, subsidiary board director of Huawei Uganda, said. “We hope that those who have benefited from these skills in this cohort can use them to improve their livelihoods. Just keep in mind that these skills you have obtained are to open up your minds to understand the importance of ICT (information and communications technology) and what it can do to improve yourself and your surroundings.”

Robert Otuke, a small business owner, shared how the DigiTruck training transformed his bookshop business by enabling internet usage for commercial purposes. He emphasised the impact of acquiring digital skills on improving livelihoods and expanding business opportunities in rural communities.

“Initially, we never had internet in our bookshop, but when I learned about using the internet and how it can make you money, we had to buy a simple Wi-Fi device. That thing helped us to commercialise internet usage in our bookshop,” said Otuke.

Ugandan Vice President Jessica Alupo commended Huawei for empowering the country’s youth and entrepreneurs through initiatives like the DigiTruck project. She emphasised the government’s commitment to involving more stakeholders in promoting digital inclusion and fostering economic growth.

The impact of China’s contributions to Uganda’s internet growth is evident in the statistics. According to data from the Ugandan Ministry of Finance, the number of internet users surged by 45% to 18.8 million in 2017, with active telephone and mobile money subscribers witnessing significant growth. This exponential rise in internet penetration underscores the transformative influence of China’s technological expertise and investment in Uganda’s socio-economic landscape.

Looking ahead, the collaboration between Uganda and China is poised to scale new heights, with plans underway to expand internet accessibility further nationwide. Through recent funding secured from the World Bank, Uganda aims to ensure universal internet access, with a focus on reducing costs and enhancing affordability, particularly in rural communities.

Initiatives like MiOne’s launch of smartphones assembled in Uganda exemplify the tangible outcomes of this partnership, providing citizens with access to affordable and quality digital devices. As Uganda charts its path towards a digital future, China’s partnership remains indispensable, catalysing innovation, growth, and progress. With a shared commitment to harnessing the transformative power of technology, Uganda and China stand poised to write a new chapter in their collaboration, one defined by connectivity, opportunity, and prosperity for all.

The writer is a research fellow at the Sino-Uganda Research Centre


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