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April 2017 · Africa

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ETHIOPIA - Communication & IT

Interview with H.E. Dr. Debretsion Gebremichael, Minister of Communication & Information Technology, Ethiopia

Prisma Reports (PR): Discussing the ICT revolution and expected investment of 400 billion dollars into the sector, how is one of the newest Ministry’s in this Government, 2005-2017, accompanying this revolution? How does it translate here in the field in Ethiopia?

H.E. Dr. Debretsion Gebremichael (H.E.D.D.G.): Our Ministry is new, seven or eight years old, but the sector has an issue that leads from ICT to agency level. Since 2010 we have this new Ministry of ICT, which is an indication of the Government's attention on the sector. It feels that ICT is the enabler for all sectors; agriculture, education, health and other services, at the same time by its own, it’s a sector and an industry. These are the two perspectives that we look at in this sector. In order to address this, we have to look at the ICT policy, which we are currently reviewing. This helps us know what to do over the next few years. We are also developing strategies of implementation for public infrastructure, for example, that covers the whole country, urban and rural. We have specialized infrastructure for the Government. You may not be familiar with the administrative levels that we have. It is almost a district level; we call it “woreda”. We have a federal, regional and zonal government. The last tier in the administration is village level. The tier in our Government is woreda. At woreda level we have all these connections of infrastructure based on satellites.

We also have satellites for school, school net; we have connected more than 2000 high schools, nearly all in the country. High schools are up to grade 10 and preparatory schools are considered to be 10 plus two. Therefore, these two layers of schools are also connected, so we have this public infrastructure that provides services for all people. We have a very dedicated, specific category of customers; Government, federal, regional; all of woreda is connected. Schools are connected to the Ministry of Health and the regional government also has its focus on education, however the most important is to have broadcasted standardized classes and lectures of the best instructors taught in every subject, both in English and in Amharic.

“This country is one of the fastest growing economies and has a lot to offer to investors. There are big opportunities in ICT, in networking as well as in services.”

We are addressing it as an enabler; it is supporting the whole development but as a sector, the ICT parks have very specific interventions that have been planned and operationalized. The IT parks consist of a specific area for companies, local as well as international, to provide their services. This is another area of intervention, so all in all there is good progress and, recently, over the last four or five years, we have completely changed the national infrastructure.

The penetration of mobile in terms of coverage is 85%. The majority of our country, nearly 80%, consists of rural communities where we have very good coverage which is constantly rising up. We have this 3G broadband infrastructure even in the rural villages. At the moment, we have modern infrastructure on mobiles. In Addis, we have 4G/LTE, which is the latest. The next stage, of course, is 5G, however 5G is still within ‘piloting’, so we have the latest technology for the people to use. We have made some very good progress but we still have much more to do.

(PR): What are the concrete examples of ICT infrastructure today in Ethiopia? What infrastructure projects are you most proud of?

(H.E.D.D.G.): At the moment, I am proud of covering the rural communities with 80% coverage. Most people did not have any access to ICT or to basic telephone services. Now they have that access. Currently, one of the most important factors to address is usage. The access is already available to our people but next comes the usage. The network is only useful if people can utilize it on a daily basis. If they do not, I call it a waste of investment. This is why we are focusing on usage now. We have embarked on a new intervention, again for the rural areas. It is not a problem for urban areas as they can buy smart phones and browse the internet as they wish. Concerning the poor, the reason why we need an intermediary arrangement, even if the infrastructure is there, is because often people cannot access it.

We are now establishing rural communication centers in each village, which are owned by users. The technical vocational educated students are organizing it as an enterprise; they do the business and we offer them the support. The housing is being provided by the village authorities. They give them a house and their main function is to provide services for the people who do not have any gadgets to browse the internet or to communicate. Those users have some education; they know how to browse the internet, however they need support: finance, computers, gadgets, training, etc. Currently, we have 1700 centers open. We started last April to cover 16,000 villages. The infrastructure is there, the people are there but they are not using it, so we are trying to bridge the connection. Therefore, this is a new development that we are proud to be finishing but we still have to see the result.

(PR): What would be the balance between private and public companies? What are you expecting from potential investors such as the US Gates Air company; what role would you like them to play here in Ethiopia?

(H.E.D.D.G.): We have to differentiate the roles of the Government. Both the Government and the private sectors have their own roles. The intervention is mainly transitioning from analogue to digital TV. That is what we want them to do. We need to transition; we need to revolutionize and transform the TV broadcasting of the country, national projects. They would come with their technology and expertise and also train our people. The investment comes from our Government in partnership with the technology and expertise from the US. It would be a great intervention for us and we look forward to seeing the results of the agreement we have already concluded. This is a very specific intervention to transform our broadcasting TV to digital so that people get more information about the state, private sector as well as education. People will be knowledgeable about what is going on.

On the telecom side, again, the infrastructure is provided by the government. We are a rural-dominated country so the government has an obligation to provide service for the poor, whether they have money or not. The Government has to take responsibility and give them the access. This is why the Government is investing in the rural communities. It is not because we are looking for profit. The most important driver is that they have the right to have access. We are trying to get them out of poverty and our vision is to become a middle-income country. Unless the infrastructure is in place, the other development will not come. It is a catalyst for development. It is with this view that the Government is working on telecom instead of simply leaving it for the market. We are worried that if we did so, the rural areas would not get any access. This is the experience we are having in Africa where we have three or four national operators but none in the villages. We did not want to make the same mistake so the Government took the responsibility of connecting the poor. 80% of the population in Ethiopia are rural communities, which is why Ethiopia Telecom is government-owned. Although it does also serve the urban communities, its intention is predominantly to serve the rural areas of our country. The access has grown significantly and the usage is also coming along now that the Government is intervening in creating rural communication centers for the poor to use. The people have to get out of poverty, so unless we have infrastructure, an enabler for everything, the Government has to be in the picture.

The private sector focusses mainly on different aspects of services. The rural areas have to be shared; it is not only Government that can play a role, the private sector also has to act on providing electronic services and e-commerce. The private sector has to augment the initiative of the Government, whilst also playing its own role. The Government is not the only player in development issues but it has to take a lead. This is what we are doing.

(PR): Are you in talks with other US companies nowadays, on other future projects?

(H.E.D.D.G.): In our sector, the main area of engagement is ICT services, not simply on the infrastructure as such. We have not seen much on infrastructure from US investors but previously, Cisco was part of our system. Years ago, the first urban infrastructure was from Cisco. Since then, we have not had much progress. It is the Chinese that want to cover the market and we look forward again to seeing companies like Cisco on the infrastructure and network side because we know their system is well respected and reliable all over the world. There are not many big companies in terms of quantity; we have some but it is not enough, therefore we need to expand on the infrastructure side with companies like Cisco.

Our satellites are mostly from Hughes, an American satellite company. We are still using their satellites but we need to do a lot on the communication aspect and the network side. We have some, but it has not progressed much for a while. We need a renewal of relationship on the infrastructure because so far, it is not going well. Recently, we had a tender requesting new companies for infrastructure lay out and deployment. We have not seen American companies but European companies are already on tender, as are Chinese companies, therefore we are still missing that intervention [from the USA].

The other opportunity are the ICT parks that are open for every private sector. We are expecting many other ICT companies to come. This country is one of the fastest growing economies and has a lot to offer to investors. There are big opportunities in ICT, in networking as well as in services.

(PR): What can you tell us about your role in and the achievements of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam? How does it relate to your ICT sector activities?

(H.E.D.D.G.): We need this energy mainly to transform the whole country. I am not saying this will do everything; we need much more. It is a bigger chunk, more than 60,000mw. So far, we have approximately 4000mw total capacity in operation, so it will take more than double that. Now we have only one dam but in a few years we will completely transform the energy sector. This will sprout and will become an engine for more growth. Without power, there is no ICT.

Another challenge we have in the rural communities is, again, power. At the moment, we are supplying all the grids with solar panels. The cost is very high but once the Dam is completed, it will electrify the centers promoting and growing ICT. All this infrastructure is supported by the national grid, which have interruptions in the systems. As a result, we are not providing a reliable service to our customers. If we have this big capacity, all interruptions will be regulated. It may not be zero but at least it will be reasonable, and only for a very short period of time until it resumes. Nevertheless, we need to provide an uninterrupted service. The current infrastructure also requires more electricity to energize our system.

(PR): When will the Dam be completed?

(H.E.D.D.G.): The dam has different phases. The initial phase is very short; we are close to finishing it. We are going to start with turbines, this dam has 16 turbines. This involves filling the hole with water. By the way, this has some issues with other countries like Sudan and Egypt, so it is being left for negotiation. This is why we cannot be very specific. We know the timeline but we cannot decide everything on our own. It can be filled up in two years, however there are other people down there waiting for the flow. Their lives are dependent on this. We have to negotiate on the flow of water, the filling up of the reservoir. We cannot be specific as it can take few or many years. However, we are almost approaching the initial stage, which involves getting the turbines. Concerning the other stages, there are bigger negotiations, on the filling up of the dam. Therefore, this dam has a lot of significance not only on ICT but all industrialization. This is an input that we need in order to offer information.

(PR): What would you like the readers, or potential investors, to think of Ethiopia after reading our socio-economic report?

(H.E.D.D.G.): Ethiopia is an investment-friendly country with a lot of opportunities. The whole inclusive development covers all sectors. The opportunities that we have are very broad; it depends on their competence and on the agreements you can have with the different actors to get into the business. Otherwise, we have good opportunities, good investment environment and fairly attractive incentives. We have long provision for investors, a supporting Government, which we feel are our partners in development. We therefore need partners from the US to contribute to our development, too.