The telecommunication industry in Uganda has registered tremendous growth over the past decade both in terms of increasing tele density and expanding networks countrywide. This is due to good stewardship by the regulatory authorities and a conducive environment by Government of Uganda which has liberalized and promoted competition while attracting investment in the sector. As a result, ICT in Uganda is a vibrant industry with vital infrastructure driving economic and social transformation.
According to the Uganda Communications Commission telecom market performance report 2020, the industry posted a26.7 million subscribers at the end of December 2019. The growth in Subscriptions translates into a penetration of 66 Lines per 100 i.e. 66% tele density, of which 97% of total subscriptions remain Mobile, while 3% are fixed. In Uganda, it’s not a mobile first strategy but a mobile only strategy. The report further notes that at the end of December 2019, the number of active smartphones on the network had grown to 6.6 million, i.e. Smartphone penetration is under 25%. This relatively low penetration is due to slow migration from feature phones to smart phones conversion.
Reflecting on the last 10 years of Airtel in Uganda I would like to share my perspective of the key trends, and changes in the sector.
Competition and Consolidation: Telecom sector remains highly competitive achieving the objectives of the government in a liberalized sector by driving innovation and investment through competition. The telecom industry globally is consolidating to achieve economies of scale and ability to invest top dollar in the ever changing technologies of 2G, 3G and 4G with fiber optic networks to enable high capacity and high speed data networks. In Uganda we have seen industry consolidation led by Airtel through the acquisition of Warid to build scale and a robust network. Separation and hiving of telecom towers to tower companies has unlocked precious capital for investment in wider coverage and access technology. Airtel’s sustained investment and innovation has led to a strong competitive telecom sector in Uganda, unlike the monopoly and dominance seen in Kenya, Ghana, Rwanda and many other African markets.
Central region to Countrywide: It is often said 80% of Uganda’s economy is within 80 kilometers of Kampala. The economic activity and consumer concentration is highly Kampala centric. This is partly due to delay in development of physical and social infrastructure across all regions and districts. Airtel has played a pivotal role in expanding and modernizing the telecom networks across all 127 districts, 211 counties, 14,66 sub county and 7,434 parishes serving nearly 97% of Uganda’s population. With high speed internet access available across Kalangala, Kiboga, Kaberamaido, Katakwi, Kaabong, Kotido, Kanungu and Kiryandongo the urban rural divide has been removed.
Convergence – Voice to Data: The most significant change in the last decade, has been the transformation of telecom networks from voice to data, data to digital. Airtel has pioneered this initiative of achieving 100% 3G and followed up with 100% 4G LTE across all its sites. Uganda is among the few nations globally to achieve this milestone of its telecom network being fully modernized. Airtel’s investment has made it possible for “Data – the New Oil” to be available across the country.
Digital transformation: The telecom industry provides the critical infrastructure and connectivity to achieve digital transformation. Some of the notable digital transformation in the sector is removal and replacement of airtime scratch cards with electronic airtime. This change has removed the messy, non-biodegradable scratch cards that were polluting the environment, and ushered in a fully electronic airtime top up solution. Registration and KYC of customers is now fully digitalised supported by an online National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA) verification. This has made it possible for a new SIM registration or replacement to be completed within 5 minutes at any of the authorized outlets. Airtel Money has not only banked the unbanked, but continues to drive financial inclusion at the bottom of the pyramid.
Compliance and Culture of partnership and giving back: In the last ten years Airtel has emerged from a loss making enterprise to a sustainably profitable one. The DNA of Airtel is one of compliance and respect of the local laws of the land. Airtel has been widely recognized for its compliance and is seen as one of the partners helping government to achieve the objectives stated in the National Broadband Policy. Airtel’s partnership with Buganda Kingdom and FUFA has led to growth of the Uganda Cranes and by connecting and winning the hearts and minds of Ugandans.
COVID 19 and resilience: The pandemic has impacted each and every one of us. Life priorities have been redefined with the pecking order of essential requirements food, clothing, shelter and smartphone. Airtel and other telecom networks role as an essential service provider, is clearly seen in helping with business continuity planning for the nation and protecting and powering people digitally.
As a long term investor with the single largest foreign direct investment from India to Uganda, Airtel has so far invested $850 million in the development of Uganda’s ICT sector with leading edge world class infrastructure. Airtel Uganda has established and brought to Uganda a strong portfolio of global technology partners. These strategic partners including Mahindra Comviva, Huawei, Nokia, ZTE, Google, Facebook, ATX and Ison Technology have each contributed technological transformation of Uganda. This has helped compliment government’s initiatives in increasing broadband access and coverage across the country.
The Government of Uganda launched the National Broadband Policy aimed to achieve the aspirations of the Uganda Vision 2040 by supporting the objectives of the National Development Plan (NDP II) whose theme is “Strengthening Uganda’s Competitiveness for Sustainable wealth creation, employment and inclusive growth”. The policy emphasizes the role of broadband internet in the socio-economic transformation process as a critical enabler. The policy is made reality through Airtel’s investment and modernization program.
As we celebrate 10 years in Uganda, we believe that by working together with local communities, suppliers, governments, consumers and beyond, we can transform Uganda, ready for the 4th Industrial revolution.
V.G Somasekhar. The writer is the Managing Director Airtel Uganda.