Chinese technical and financial support is critical to accelerating Uganda's Information, Communications and Technology (ICT) development, Ugandan experts and officials said.
"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. "We continue as a nation to look forward to that type of support and collaboration," he added in a recent interview with Xinhua.
In 2006, Uganda acquired USD 106 million loans from the Export-Import Bank of China to build the country's National Data Transmission Backbone Infrastructure (NBI) and Electronic Government Infrastructure (EGI). The project, implemented by China's Huawei Technologies, involves laying fibre optic cable across the country. It is part of an East Africa-wide terrestrial fibre optic cable, which will, when completed, cover 15,600 kilometres.
Frank Tumwebaze, Ugandan minister of ICT, said recently over 8,000 kilometres of fibre optic cables had been laid across the country. John Nasasira, head of a national task force charged with advising government on emerging technologies, said connectivity across the country is critical to using the ICT as an enabler for economic development.
He said Uganda should continue to count on technical expertise from countries like China as it strives to develop the ICT infrastructure. According to the National Information Technology Authority, a state-owned agency, Uganda has already started reaping benefits from the NBI/EGI project.
Most state and local government entities, as well as government service centres like hospitals, universities, have been connected online, and the cost of the internet bandwidth continues to fall. Official data also show that ICT has become one of the fastest growing sectors, advancing at an average of 19.3 percent per year. Meanwhile, Chinese telecommunications companies, such as ZTE, continue to play a critical role in developing Uganda's private sectors.
ZTE entered the Ugandan market in 2006. It was one of the companies which first supplied smartphones in the country. Beyond this, the company started installing and providing data and network servers for several telecommunication companies in the country. In an interview with Xinhua, Robin Bai, Chief Technical Officer ZTE Uganda, said Uganda already has 3G and 4G, and the next plan will be to launch 5G technology trials.
According to the Ugandan Ministry of Finance, as a result of these ICT advances, the number of internet users increased by 45 percent to 18.8 million in 2017 from 13 million in 2015. Active telephone subscribers now total 22.4 million and the number of mobile money subscribers jumped to 23 million in 2017 from 2.8 million in 2011.
Official data show that mobile money is now the main driver of formal financial inclusion in Uganda, with about 23 million registered accounts compared with just 5 million registered accounts in traditional banks.