Reflections on the policy evolution in Rwanda’s ICT sector

Reflections on the policy evolution in Rwanda’s ICT sector

10 October, 2023    

In implementing the Rwanda Economy Digitalisation Programme, Cenfri has worked with multiple stakeholders and partners to acquire datasets to inform policy that will improve the country’s digital economy.

As the programme evolves, there is a growing appetite from policy and decision-makers for Cenfri’s data analysis. Our policy associate, Charles Semapondo, takes us through the policy landscape in Rwanda’s ICT sector and explains how data is playing a role in informing decisions.

Natacha Umutoni: You have vast experience in the telecommunications/ICT industry, what inspired you to pursue a career in the field and how did you find yourself into policy making?

Charles Semapondo: My journey in the telecommunications/ICT industry and my involvement in regulations and the policy domain began with a combination of personal interest and career opportunities. I’ve always been fascinated by the rapid advancements in technology and its impact on society. I entered the telecommunications industry in the early 1980s as an engineer dealing with technical matters and later as a manager dealing with managerial aspects., With my growing experience in the industry, I became more involved in interacting with regulators and policymakers. It was obvious that policy and regulatory environment played a crucial role in shaping the industry and determining its direction. Participation in national, regional, and international forums and meetings on telecommunications-related policies and regulations was an important contribution to understanding the telecom business environment necessary for contributing to the formulation of regulations and policies.

Later, it wasn’t difficult to switch from the telecommunication industry operations side to the policy and regulation side. Expertise in telecommunications enhanced my ability to make informed decisions in regulatory and policy roles, address technical challenges, and develop effective regulations that align with the capabilities and requirements of the telecommunications industry. This expertise is crucial for ensuring that policies and regulations support the industry’s growth, innovation, and ability to meet the evolving needs of society. What inspired me to delve into the policy domain was the opportunity to make a positive impact on industry and society.

NU: Looking back to your experience with the private sector, the regulator, and the government in the telecom/ICT industry, what do you see has changed over the years in policymaking?

CS: The policy landscape in the telecom and ICT industry has undergone significant changes over the years in response to socio-economic changes driven by technological advancements, and market dynamics. This evolution is a dynamic process influenced by a variety of factors, including public opinion, technological advancements, demographic shifts, and economic developments.

Before 1998, the Rwandan telecommunications market was monopolistic, with one landline state-owned company. With the introduction of mobile telephony and broadband services, the Government of Rwanda created the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA) to play a pivotal role to ensure equilibrium between the interests of the policymaker, licenced service providers and consumers.

Technological evolution, market dynamics, and competition led regulators and policymakers to liberalise and allow new entrants, to adopt new regulations and policies to facilitate the introduction of convergence of services, net neutrality, privacy and data protection, security and cybersecurity, universal service and access, open access and infrastructure sharing, digital inclusion, and digital financial services.

Considering the important role of the private sector in economic development, policymaking has shifted from a traditional top-down approach where government officials and experts often crafted policies without significant input from stakeholders or the public, to effective stakeholder engagement. Policy and regulation formulation in the ICT sector in Rwanda were driven by the need to promote industry growth, ICT services, protecting consumers, ensuring fair competition, driving economic development, and realising the country’s vision for the future.

The 4th industrial revolution requires more automated services and the introduction of artificial intelligence and robotics in the country will need more advanced networks than 4G. Policymakers and regulators in Rwanda are now encouraged to consider policy frameworks that support the deployment of emerging technologies such as  Internet of Things (IoTs) and artificial intelligence, while also thinking about security and spectrum challenges around emerging technologies.

NU: Cenfri has analysed a lot of data and developed numerous recommendations for the Government of Rwanda. What do you think are the key steps and considerations involved in the policy-making process from inception to implementation?

 CS: The policymaking process is a complex and iterative journey that involves several key steps and considerations. These steps guide the development and implementation of policies, ensuring that they address specific issues, achieve desired outcomes, and are responsive to changing circumstances.

Under the Rwanda Economy Digitalisation Programme, we have been using data analytics tools to extract valuable insights from data, assess policy implementation outcomes and provide recommendations to inform decision-making in the transport, agriculture, tourism, retail and education sectors.

Using data analytics in policymaking helps in monitoring and evaluation of the policy implementation by producing insights that help identify issues, make real-time adjustments, or refine and adapt the policy as necessary, and ensure the policy remains aligned with its goals. Our data analytics has helped identify several issues and our recommendations have been adopted by policymakers in some of these sectors.

 NU: One of the challenges that Cenfri faces is accessing data for some sectors and institutions; how do you think this affects decision-making in those sectors and what can be done?

CS: Decision-making without data is challenging and is generally considered less effective and more prone to errors and biases. Evidence and data are crucial for informed, rational, and objective decision-making. Data helps us understand the problem, identify trends and patterns, assess impact, evaluate policy effectiveness, and provide transparency and accountability.

The reasons for withholding data or denying access to the data vary but are often associated with poor data literacy in the organisation, resistance to change or risk avoidance among others. Barriers to data-driven decision-making include lack of awareness of the potential benefits of using data or may not understand how it can be applied to their specific domain, perceived irrelevance, lack of trust and fear of misuse, and cultural factors that may encourage hoarding of information.

To overcome these barriers and get access to an organisation’s data, it is important to ensure that the leadership of the organisation understands the clear benefits of data, how their related concerns will be addressed and to actively involve leaders in the organisation’s data journey. We need to gain leadership buy-in, align with organisational goals and strategic priorities, be persistent in showcasing the value and relevance of data, provide training and education on data literacy, start with small projects, address concerns, and quantify the benefits.

Leadership support and commitment are likely to grow as the positive impact of data-driven practices becomes evident.

NU: What are some common misconceptions or myths about policymaking that you’ve encountered in your career?

 CS: Policymaking is sometimes misunderstood and influenced by misconceptions depending on the different sides and interests you are involved in, such as industry, regulators, policymakers, and consumers.

One common myth is that policymaking follows a linear and rational process when it is quite a complex and messy process with many stakeholders, interests, and compromises.

Some people believe that policymaking should be entirely apolitical and based solely on facts and expertise. However, policy decisions are inherently political, as they involve choices about resource allocation, distribution of benefits, and trade-offs among competing interests. In practice, personal values, political considerations, and public opinion often play significant roles in decision-making.

While data is important in policymaking, there is a misconception that all policy decisions are rigorously data-driven. In some cases, political considerations or ideologies can override data-driven recommendations. While public input is important, public consultation is also not always a guarantee for better policies, as effective engagement requires careful design and consideration of diverse perspectives. Policymaking is often viewed as a response to crises or issues; however, proactive policymaking also occurs to anticipate and address future challenges.

Acknowledging these misconceptions and complexities can promote more informed and constructive discussions about public policy.

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