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Is SA losing the IT race?

The South African IT industry is slipping behind its neighbours in the race to dominate the continent's high-tech sectors.

SA is being left behind by Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria in terms of attracting investment and industry with technology, says Computer Society SA's Adrian Schofield.

Many years of disorganisation at the Department of Communications (DOC) has left SA without a national ICT policy, and without the co-ordinated efforts to stimulate local IT markets. The DOC recently held a colloquium intended to kick-start the policy process, but will it yield results in time to salvage SA's competitive standings?

A national ICT policy should cover three broad areas, while remaining closely aligned to overall government objectives. The stimulation of the IT industry, measured by sector performance versus GDP, is one key area. Another is e-government: the use of ICT to improve government services internally, or deliver services electronically. And regulation is also fundamental, with issues such as spectrum allocation and management of the competitive telecoms environment at the forefront of ICT development.

Do we even need a policy at all? From afar, the local IT industry appears to be performing well despite the lack of a national ICT policy. But it could be a lot better, say analysts, and we are facing ever-stiffer competition from abroad and will need a co-ordinated effort to improve as a sector and a nation. “We need government involvement,” says Adrian Schofield, president of the Computer Society South Africa. “In the first place, to undo the restrictive legislation and regulation that is holding us back. Most of it is based on very old thinking and needs to take account of new realities. In the second place, to look at liberalising, facilitating, encouraging and educating so that we can get on the ground running to catch up with (and pass) the competitor countries that are taking food from our mouths.”

Obvious benefits

An implemented policy would have an effect within a year and a major effect within five years.

SA has been lacking an ICT policy despite that being the subject of debate between the DOC and industry stakeholders for many years. We have seen five new ministers at the helm of the DOC in as many years, and each has restarted the process of drafting ICT policy and setting goals, many of which have been missed, or criticised for lacking immediate relevance.

Meanwhile, other countries in Africa have been pushing ahead aggressively, with many already well down their strategic roadmaps to strengthen their domestic ICT industries, attract foreign investment, and embrace ICT in government. “We are being left seriously behind by Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria in terms of attracting investment and industry with technology,” Schofield says. “They will become the economic engines of the continent.”

Sinking ship?

SA's competitive position is weak and getting weaker.

Kenya, in particular, has staked its claim with a roadmap including short-term goals for investment, and long-term plans to increase the IT sector's contribution to a quarter of GDP.

SA's competitive position is weak and getting weaker, analysts say. “Without a policy, the country won't be in the same position a year from now. It will be worse,” predicts Mukesh Chulani, research manager, IDC Government Insights, Middle East, Turkey and Africa.

By the numbers: SA's poor showing

The World Economic Forum's (WEF) Global Information Technology Report 2012 identified several areas where SA is falling behind, most centring on areas needing government involvement. And that is the key, Schofield says. “National ICT policy is not just about private sector development – it is how the government will use the potential of ICT tools to grow the economy through better education, better healthcare, better government, better governance. It is about ensuring that our people have the skills to use the tools that ICT creates and then have the skills to innovate the tools and the processes that enable their economic (and social) worth. Our ICT community may appear to be thriving, but it is a fraction of the size and dynamism that it should be for a country with our resources.”

In overall network readiness, SA holds a slight advantage over other African states, but may struggle to hold it. SA placed 72nd on that score in the WEF rankings, with only Mauritius higher (in 53rd), but the numbers don't reflect the sharp drop: “SA was in the mid-30s in the 2000s,” Chulani points out. “The drop is because of the lack of a policy outlining how technology should be deployed and aligned with the country's developmental goals.”

Education stood out in the WEF rankings, and in the measure of math and science education in particular, SA was ranked fifth-worst globally, with only Angola lower among sub-Saharan African states.

Where every public sector ranking places SA behind the global mean, the corporate world is very different. South African businesses rank 30th in the ranking of business adoption of new technology, and 46th on the measurement of business Internet use – in both cases scoring above the global mean.

In other words, the corporate sector is making progress despite government, not because of it, and should be doing even better.

“The private sector gets on with earning a living as best it can,” Schofield says. “Sometimes that results in big wins – Dimension Data, Shuttleworth, MXit, Derivco, UEC. Mostly, though, we import far too much technology that we should have developed here. Proper technology parks, real enterprise development, venture capital, etc. would help the sector to flourish.”

The South African tenacity comes at a cost, too, Schofield says. “The good thing is business is pragmatic, it will do whatever it must to adapt and stay in business. But the bad thing is, as a result, there is no incentive to do the right thing in terms of social/community responsibility,” Schofield says. “For example, we had the BEE cycle, which should have resulted in a deep-seated philosophy of doing the right thing, but that hasn't really happened in ICT. If you just get the tick in the box, you're fine.”

Isolated success stories defy the odds

Some individual government departments have established successful ICT projects despite the lack of overarching policy guidance. “The right person driving a project can achieve results despite the lack of official policy. We do have people with the right skills, willing to put them to use,” Schofield says. SARS and eNatis have demonstrated that government can use technology to achieve ambitious goals, he says. SARS is widely regarded as a champion of e-government, with both a slick customer-facing product, and a well-integrated backend. But there are few similar success stories, amid many tales of projects gone awry.

IDC's Chulani, however, adds a word of caution even to successful projects. “The success stories like SARS and eNatis are due to departmental vision – they are internal, rather than led by government efforts. The absence of policy leads to sectoral or departmental initiatives. Over time, those become more entrenched, and it becomes more difficult to resolve because of those established individual initiatives.” In other words, successful silos can be a sign of policy failure, and may cause problems further down the line.

The DOC is not blind to this. At her introduction at the ICT Policy Colloquium, in April, minister Dina Pule promised a comprehensive, all-encompassing policy review, “We can't afford to have a piecemeal approach to a review process that would allow us to only close policy loopholes in existing legislation and not lay a foundation for a prosperous and progressive future, enabled by ICTs. We expect to consolidate all policy on broadcasting services in the digital environment; broadband and Internet access; spectrum licensing framework for the country's development; new regulatory areas in all of these; funding and investment; e-skills development; local content development and ICT market growth. ICT policy must respond to the government priority of job creation.”

Job creation requires industry-wide stimulation of the ICT sector. Between 2003 and 2005, SA's average ICT expenditure as a percentage of GDP was a healthy 9.13%, but that had dropped to 4.3% of the GDP in 2008, below the world average of 5.4%.

National ICT Policy Colloquium

The colloquium was intended to kick-start the policy process, pulling together around 800 stakeholders from government departments and the private sector to discuss initial steps, with the DOC promising initial draft documents later this year, completion of the process during 2013, and action by 2014. “As the department, we are committed to moving with speed in ensuring that we conclude all the legislative and Parliamentary requirements for developing policies by the end of next year and start implementing these policies in 2014,” Pule said.

Key to improving the sector's performance are the existing goals of universal access to broadband and the creation of one million ICT jobs by 2020, objectives set out last year in the ICT Industry Competitiveness and Job Creation Compact. Pule has committed to those targets, but most observers would like to see shorter-term milestones as well; milestones against which the performance of the DOC and other departments can be measured.

“One million jobs in ICT: that's five times the current level,” Schofield says. “How are we going to employ them? How are we going to create companies and generate demand for products?” Those are short-term questions that should be answered with action plans, and then measured, he says. “We must have incentives for success, and penalties for failure.”

Consolidating the requirements of multiple stakeholders, including government departments, agencies, SEOs and the private sector, is a mammoth task for the DOC. If the department is successful, the results should pay off quickly. “The book should be more than the sum of its words,” says Chulani. “The problem has been the absence of an overarching ICT policy that acknowledges the need to push service delivery.”

“An implemented policy would have an effect within a year and a major effect within five years,” Schofield agrees.

Although it was only a preliminary step, the colloquium sets the stage for the process to move swiftly forward. “This was an excellent way to kick if off,” says Denis Smit, MD of BMI-TechKnowledge, who notes that, although broad policy goals are long-term, the industry should expect rapid movement from here. “It will take 18 months to two years to go through the process of white paper, green paper and finally into legislation, but we mustn't slow down while we wait. There are several items we can make progress on now to have a dramatic impact.” Smit points to issues such as resolving the spectrum allocation debate and opening Telkom's bitstream service as needing immediate resolution. “Time is short – it takes months' of work, so the next steps have to happen soon.”

Some of those issues are now very pressing indeed. The debates around the switch from analogue to digital television – and the spectrum reallocation thereafter – have dragged on for years, to the point we are at today, with the ITU's deadline looming and many observers questioning whether we have left it too late.

The private sector will be watching the next steps closely. First, for involvement in the process of drafting the long-awaited national ICT policy. And second, for the benefits that policy can bring. How exactly the stakeholders will be included in the policy process is unclear at this stage, but the colloquium showed the intent of the DOC to bring as many heads to the table as possible.

The stakes are high and the market is cynical: the track record of the DOC has historically been poor. But if minister Pule can defy the odds and produce – and implement – a national ICT policy, then the country and the ICT sector could reap the benefits.


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