Just over a month ago, on the 17th of December 2019, the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance held its first ICT Expo at the Uganda Institute of Information and Communication Technology. The Expo featured a number of indigenous technology innovators showcasing their innovations and it was graced by the President who pledged to invest even more funds in the ecosystem as long as there is evidence that the funding is producing the desired results. I remember chuckling heartily when he talked about spending so much via NAADS on “nyanya” (tomatoes) to prove his point about the availability of the cited extra funds. Many of the exhibitors at the Expo were beneficiaries of NIISP funding. Incidentally, the grounds where the Expo took place are next to the site where the Ministry is building an Innovation Hub intended to provide office space and incubation services to startups at subsidised rates.
Over the weekend preceding the Expo, news had broken of a Cabinet reshuffle. I didn’t immediately seek the details primarily because there have been several hoaxes in the past but when it became clear that this was not one of them, I quickly got the new cabinet list and scanned through:
Seeing the confirmation that Hon. Tumwebaze would be leaving the MOICT&NG was quite hard to swallow. It was quite clear that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way; the general sentiment within the ICT fraternity was one of loss and, for some, even anger. Yet, it must be said, for many an external observer, these sentiments would have appeared to be quite odd given that many of those that were expressing them are very far from what you’d term as enthusiasts of this government. However, most of them acknowledge real progress when they encounter it and by many measures, Frank’s tenure at the ministry was marked by several indisputable indicators of real progress. For many of us who derive our livelihood in this sector of the economy – and this is with no disrespect to previous occupants of the office – his three and a half years at the helm were the first time in the history of the ministry that we felt the leadership there actually cared about the sector as a whole. And yet, truth be told, at the time of his appointment, many of us were not overly enthusiastic about his posting.
Speaking for myself, I recall Hon. Tumwebaze was coming from the Kampala ministry where I felt he and the KCCA establishment had treated the Lord Mayor very unfairly (few things rile me as much as injustice). And given the negligible impact of the MoICT on the ICT sector back then from my perspective, I didn’t really think much would change. As I write this today, I can’t help but marvel at two things; first, what a difference a scant 3.5 years can make and secondly, how wrong initial impressions and expectations can be. So how exactly did the new Minister influence so many of us to the extent that we wanted “no change”?
First of all, the progress alluded to above: Luckily, the CEO Magazine published an excellent article laying out the MoICT’s achievements over the past 3 years thus saving me the effort of having to list them all here. As an ICT entrepreneur who had struggled to raise the funding my startup needed to properly execute its strategy and who had seen many other promising innovators face the same constraints, the birth of NIISP was a bright ray of hope. Indeed, the company I founded was selected as part of the second (2019) cohort and the funds received so far will enable it to complete some crucial product development. What is so praise-worthy about NIISP is the fact that selection is entirely on merit – your product or idea has to speak for itself. Even more remarkable is the fact that the top leadership at the MOICT understand that some of the projects will fail but they are sure the people involved will gain valuable experience and skills that will serve them and the ecosystem well in future i.e. they understand the “value of failing” – something that is sorely missing in our culture. I have seen some people that didn’t have firsthand knowledge of the selection process suggesting that it must have been fraudulent because some of the candidate projects seemed to be too ambitious. In so doing, they show that they don’t understand the purpose of the programme. In any case, I and many others that have been in the innovation trenches are witnesses to the meritoriousness and impartiality of the process.
That the MoICT was able to mobilise the funds needed for NIISP and the Innovation Hub currently under construction in Nakawa is solid proof that the minister and his leadership team were not sitting still in the meetings where fiscal matters were being discussed. My understanding is that such resources don’t just get allocated fwaaa without a fight and so I am grateful that we had a team willing to fight for the ecosystem, especially since the political return on investment was always likely to be underwhelming.
Some of his achievements such as as the overhaul of UBC and institution of the GCIC were highly visible while the impact of others such as the aforementioned NIISP initiative was only felt within the ICT fraternity/eco-system. Others such as the various regulatory policies that were introduced or enacted may not have had an immediate tangible impact but they will influence the sector for years to come e.g. the Broadband Policy and the Data Protection and Privacy Act.
Secondly, in addition to the achievements, I believe the other major reason we will miss Hon. Tumwebaze is that he was always willing to engage, listen and learn and then act. When he took up this post, I happened to be serving on the Board of the ICTAU. At the time, government had recently introduced new regulations governing the certification of ICT firms and professionals. We strongly felt that these regulations were going to negatively affect the sector by stifling innovation and placing insurmountable barriers to growth of small local ICT companies. We thus engaged the Ministry and NITA-U protesting the regulations. Over a series of meetings with the principals including the Minister, PS and NITA top leadership, we managed to get reasonable concessions and the regulations were amended accordingly. It was during these engagements – physically and via email – that I came to appreciate the minister’s character – candid, always willing to listen and willing to concede where we made a good case for our position. It would have been very easy for someone in his shoes to ignore our entreaty and let things continue – an approach that would have no doubt been detrimental to the development of the local ICT business sector but one that many of us have experienced with various government officials. Even on social media, Hon. Tumwebaze is probably the most engaging government official who responds to nearly every sensible inquiry regardless of inquirer.
I suspect the Minister’s willingness to engage the community probably inspired others within the ministry to adopt the same approach. I certainly feel that there was a level of openness from the Ministry as a whole as well as bodies such as NITA and UCC in recent years that was previously absent. Even the setting up of the Government Citizens Information Center (GCIC) was a sign that the Ministry was ready to take the Information and “NG” bits of its mandate seriously regardless of the seeming functional overlap between it and other institutions such as the Media Centre.
Obviously, the MoICT didn’t get everything right. I still think that the introduction of the Social Media (OTT) and Mobile Money taxes was a terrible decision and the Ministry should have pushed back against the Executive harder. But maybe they did and got overruled – who knows? Whereas NIISP is a great initiative, there were some bottlenecks in the funds disbursement process but these were generally beyond the MoICT’s control and were eventually sorted out. The still unresolved telecom licensing issues as well as UCC’s continued willingness to unjustifiably (read partisanly) poke its nose in areas of the media industry it shouldn’t also fall on the other side of the balance sheet. I also can’t claim to know the internal workings of the ministry so well as to say it was entirely perfect during the past 3 and a half years. But the little I saw convinced me that the Hon. Tumwebaze and his team were putting in an incredible amount of effort and that their efforts were having a tangible, positive impact on the ICT ecosystem and country as a whole. For this, I have to say thank you to Frank and wish him well in his new station (Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Affairs). In mentioning his team, I must single out the Permanent Secretary Hon. Vincent Bagiire and the NITA-ED James Saaka for special praise: during my interactions with them, they too have demonstrated the same willingness to engage and laser like focus on service delivery that I had come to appreciate in the minister. Even as he leaves, I am immensely relieved that they are staying behind to help keep the ship on course. A huge round of applause for you gentlemen and your teams is in order.
Last week, Hon. Tumwebaze handed over office to his successor. Of course, I have now learnt not to judge books based on their covers and so I will reserve any comment on my expectations for the new team – Hon. Judith Nabakooba and Hon. Peter Ogwang. You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the former State Minister anywhere so far. I can only shudder to think of where we would be if she had been the senior minister during her tenure. I sincerely hope that the new duo will pick a leaf – nay, a whole branch – from the former senior minister as opposed to her. That’s the only way the sector will continue to grow in leaps and bounds to the point where it will be a critical component of the nation’s economy. I wish them well.