Author Archives: Bernard Sabiti

A short History of Uganda’s ICT Revolution and the Law of Unintended Consequences

By Bernard Sabiti

The history of ICTs in Uganda is a short but intense one. Uganda started embracing ICTs as part of its economic development strategy when the first mobile phone service came onto the Ugandan scene in December 1994. The telecom company Celtel, using the GSM 900 technology mainly targeted high end users like business people and the diplomatic community. The cost of owning and maintaining a mobile phone was so high that that having a car was estimated to be a cheaper undertaking. Owning a mobile phone was a status symbol.

Things began to change however, with the entry into the market, of the South African giant Mobile Telecommunications Network (MTN) in 1998. Calls became cheaper, and the network was extended to rural areas, going beyond Kampala as the hub for the mobile telephone industry. More players like Airtel, Warid and Zain entered the marked with more diversified products making communication even cheaper. More internet providers also came on the scene and the cost, while still one of the most expensive in the world, became much cheaper than before.

Since then, the ICT sector has grown rapidly. The industry Grew by 30.3% in the 2009/10 financial year accounting for 3.3% of the GDP. Over 50% of the population are subscribed to mobile phone service provider and the number of internet users increased from 2,475,812 in 2008 to 4,178,085 in 2010 (168% of growth). Internet users are estimated at 6.5million as of 2012, accounting for 18.5 percent of the country’s population of 35 million. The increase in internet usage has been further fueled by the country’s youth bulge. Uganda has the world’s youngest population, with over 78% below 30 years. These are more embracing of ICTs than their older, and inevitably old school, parents.

The liberalization of the communication industry also led to an increase in FM radio stations which now number in hundreds and as a result up to 80 percent of all households especially in the countryside now rely on radio for news and information. The “Ebimeeza” (people’s parliaments) call-in talk shows were popularized and people began to freely debate the most important political and social issues of the day. There also dozens of TV stations and a couple of daily newspapers serving different audiences in the country.

The explosion in ICTs was aided by friendly ICT policies which created an enabling environment for ICT entrepreneurs to blossom. The National Information And Communication Technology Policy of 2003 was intended to help the government implement more successful long term national development programmes like the Poverty Eradication Action Plan (PEAP), the Plan for Modernization of Agriculture (PMA), and others, by ensuring that timely and relevant information is available at all levels of implementation.

The Ministry of Information and Communications was established in June 2006 with a mandate of “providing strategic and technical leadership, overall coordination, support and advocacy on all matters of policy, laws, regulations and strategy for the ICT sector”.

Developments in ICTs have dramatically changed the way information is collected, stored, processed, disseminated and used, thus making it a powerful tool for modernization and development.


Inevitably however, the growth in ICTs also culminated into social, political and economic situations that were not equally desirable for all the stakeholders

The free discussions by ordinary people of social-political issues on several radio stations did not augur well for some in the government who decided to start clamping down on these discussions. Ebimeeza were banned by the Broadcasting Council in September 2009

Radio and TV stations as well as newspapers that were deemed to “spread inflammatory material” were threatened and some were closed which forced others into self-censorship

Then came the explosion in Social Media growth. Million of Ugandans are signed up on facebook, twitter and many young elite activists are endlessly sharing their opinions on blogs across the internet. This is aided by the increasing ownership of smartphones that are replacing old, ‘call-only’ handsets that are now derided as belonging to ‘stone age’. Facebook and Twitter were blocked by the government during the 2016 presidential election over fears that people might announce premature results. Officials are still warning of the potential dangers of social media to Uganda’s stability.

Cyber crime is also increasing in Uganda. The country’s Tax collecting body, The Uganda Revenue Authority (URA)’s systems were hacked into in 2013 leading to an estimated sh2billion ($700,000) tax loss in vehicle registrations. The telecom giant MTN also lost sh15 billion (US$5.7million) in Mobile Money fraud, a scam made possible by insider collaboration.  Many companies desist from reporting such crimes for fear of scaring away potential clients so it’s possible the problem is more widespread than reported. Such crimes are complex and difficult to prosecute by a justice system to which they are a completely new development.

This has created a dilemma for the government; how to protect information users while not appearing to clamp down on freedom of information and expression the country’s laws unabashedly support.

The government has so far failed to walk this fine line. Sweeping legislations have been put in place that are threatening the rights of individuals’ constitutional rights to privacy and self expression

The regulations put in place and their enforcement sometimes go beyond their mandate. In March 2012, the Government of Uganda tabled the Communications Regulatory Authority Bill, a major piece of legislation ‘intended to consolidate and harmonise existing and overlapping laws’

Citing what it calls ‘security ramifications of online activity that  have begun to permeate the national consciousness’ Government under the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology developed a National Information Security Strategy (2011) which aims at addressing security challenges that are envisaged in this era of technological advances.

Other laws that came before or at the heels of this strategy include: the Regulation of Interception of Communications (RIC), 2010, which parliament hurriedly passed in the aftermath of the July 2010 bomb attacks, and allows for interception of communications and possible intrusion into personal communications. It also requires telecom companies to collect customers’ information, including name, address and identity number, and to take other measures to enable interception. A registration of all SIM card owners in Uganda exercise concluded on May 31, 2013, which made the monitoring easier. As a matter of fact, an explosive report by the BBC last year stated that Uganda’s government had been spying on the opposition and the media for years, using spying equipment supplied by a UK technology firm.

The Anti-Terrorism Act No.14 of 2002 gives security officers powers to intercept the communications of a person suspected of terrorist activities and to keep such persons under surveillance. The scope of the interception and surveillance includes letters and postal packages, telephone calls, faxes, emails and other communications, as well monitoring meetings of any group of persons. Others powers include the surveillance (including electronic) of individual’s movements and activities, and access to their bank accounts.

Older laws such as the Anti-Terrorism Act (2002); Press and Journalist Act of 2000 and the Regulation of the Interception of Communications Act of 2010 remain on the books to negate these freedoms.  Since 2010, a number of other restrictive laws have also been drafted such as the Public Order Management Act (2013) which seeks to regulate the conduct of public meetings as well as discussion of issues at such meetings and the 2010 Press and Journalists Amendment Bill intended to enforce annual registration and licensing of newspapers by the statutory Media Council.

Even those laws exclusively focused on fighting cyber crime are suspiciously viewed by some due to the dubious language in which they are crafted:

  • The computer misuse act of 2010 is intended to “ensure the safety and security of electronic transactions and information systems and other related matters
  • The Electronic Transaction Act 2011 is “to provide for the use, security, facilitation and regulation of electronic communications and transactions and to provide for related matters”
  • The Electronic Signatures Act, 2011 aims “to make provision for and to regulate the use of electronic signatures and to provide for other related matters”

 It is those “other related matters” that analysts believe may in the end make these laws go beyond the limits of  their jurisdiction, and negate some of the freedoms enshrined in other government laws that guarantee  peoples’ freedoms to use and benefit from the country’s ICTs revolution

Government therefore needs some self restraint to avoid overzealousness in controlling people’s enjoyment of the information age. The ICT industry in Uganda has a number of stakeholders who play different complementary roles. These include the Government that plays regulatory role, private sector that invests in technology and establishes ICT businesses, the donor community that supports the sector financially and technically, civil society and the media, while citizens consume and use the proceeds from the industry. A framework needs to be worked out to protect the stakeholder roles and promote positive interrelationships in the ICT ecosystem and thus increase the positive impact of ICTs in Uganda without harming the interests of any stakeholder.

I lead the Governance and Transparency theme at Development Research and Training and do work for Development Initiatives as an Engagement advisor. The views expressed here are mine not of the two organisations. Email 

The potential and limits of Big Data in Africa

By Bernard Sabiti

The term “Big Data” as being currently used in the Data/Digital revolution emphasis of the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda refers to “Extremely large data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions”. It is “An all-encompassing term used to refer to any collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using on-hand data management tools or traditional data processing applications

From November 14-19, 2015, I attended a conference on “Big Data in the Global South”  in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This was an international conference on Big Data organized by the Rio-based think-tank ITS, Institute for Technology and Society. It was attended by high level representatives of governments of different countries, as well as a select group of experts in the field, funders, and key representatives from civil society, academia and private sector. The purpose of the conference was to develop practical strategies to address the challenges posed by the use of Big Data by both governments and corporations, with a focus on the Global South.

Some of the discussions on how Big Data was already impacting the development of “The global South” (countries located in the Southern Hemisphere that includes both countries with medium and low human development) was too simplistic in my view, ignoring the social-economic and political contexts and diversities of the developing world, especially when it comes to Africa.

Big Data in Africa

There is no doubt about the potential of Big Data in Africa’s development.  Africa has taken great strides in the technological and policy prerequisites necessary for big data impact. The explosion in the growth of the ICT industry, the rise of the use of mobile technology for financial and development transactions have been well documented. In Uganda for example, Mobile money financial transactions are changing the way business is done, helping the rural poor leverage microfinance and carry out profitable self-sustaining small businesses without any need for big banks.

With more than 629 million mobile-phone users in Africa, phone data presents enormous opportunities for decision-makers. From humanitarian assistance to disease epidemiology and climate change mitigation, these data are helping boost life-changing decision making.

At the sidelines of the event, I explained some of these issues

Data-based decision making is connecting countries on the vast continent than ever before, from regional integration in general to trade cooperation specifically.  For example, from The African Union’s Regional Integration Index, a data aggregation tool summarizing info on more than 70 indicators, enabling countries to check the performance of peers in their regional economic communities, to the massive databases of the continent’s telecom giants and the satellite-based data collection by some entities, there are few better places where the promise of the global Data Revolution is more apparent.

Danger of Overstating impacts of Big Data

There is need for caution however, when discussing the impact of Big Data on Africa’s development.

The excitement generated by the possibilities described above has sometimes led to simplistic cause-effect attribution of change to Big Data, without adequate consideration of the “correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation” truism which would mean taking stock of Africa’s unique Social-political, technological context and other factors before determining matter-of-factly whether some of the changes we see in these studies are solely a result of data.

A number of studies on the impact of Big Data and open data in Africa have already been done, some with some sweeping conclusions that call for caution from advocates and researchers.

Privacy issues of Big Data

Data protection and privacy, important elements of Big Data are still underdeveloped in most of Africa. Most countries still do not have Data Protection and privacy laws in place, and given that most governments are hybrid regimes with authoritarian and semi-democratic tendencies, there is a danger that Big Data may be exploited to the detriment of rights of citizens. Telecommunications companies remain biggest holders of Big Data in Africa, and most of them are in cahoots with Governments and easily relinquish client data which is used for surveillance of critics, as seen in the recent mass apposition surveillance scandal in Uganda. This is an issue that is always put at the periphery or sometimes not mentioned at all in touting the impact of Big Data.

At the “Big Data in the Global South” Conference hosted by the Institute of Technology and Society in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, in November, Which I was privileged to attend, these and other issues were spotlighted, but again there wasn’t enough appreciation of the fact that the “Global South” is by no means a universal region. Africa especially stands apart for its unique historical, technological and sociopolitical context and this affects its experiences with any development interventions.

In conclusion

Overstating the impact of Big Data, open data and other data or techie-enabled interventions to development is to do a disservice to these initiatives in the long run as it prevents a more thorough understanding of the challenges and opportunities of these initiatives for better conceptualization, targeting and improvement.

The takeaway therefore is that Big Data doesn’t, and cannot provide all the answers in development theory, or practice in Africa, even with its obvious potential. Acknowledging Big Data’s obvious limits helps development actors and big data advocates to devise ways of improving the impact.

Most data scientists are modest in acknowledging these limits. We advocates however, tend to be too buoyant in stating the case for big data and open data. Different contexts at play need to be put into consideration in making the case for the potential and real impact of these initiatives.

Bernard Sabiti is a Senior Programme Officer at Development Research and Training and also works part time at Development Initiatives‘ Kampala Office as a Partnerships manager and Engagement Advisor

Uganda Open Data stakeholders Mapping Report

DRT moves to strengthen Collaboration among Open Data stakeholders in Uganda

Bernard Sabiti

Senior Programme Officer, Open Development

Development Research and Training

One of the challenges that have been standing in the way of a potentially more effective open data community in Uganda has been lack of strong collaboration and partnership between different organizations working on Open Data in Uganda.

A study DRT conducted in 2012 found that open data actors in the country were “polarized, fractured, share different and conflicting agendas and in some cases, are not even aware of one another’s existence” They also tended to operate in exclusive sub-groups or ‘cliques’ with apparent tensions between them. Although these tensions are not necessarily a bad thing as they could lead to further innovation, they can and seem to have resulted in duplication of effort, competition for available resources and a pursuit of multi-layered, often conflicting agendas in their efforts to advocate for data access and transparency. The study concluded that this lack of coordination and collaboration among the different players curtailed the impact that the open data movement would otherwise have had on decision making and improvement on the lives of real people in the country

It against the above background that DRT, a founding chair of the Uganda Open Development Platform, a loose coalition of organizations working on open data in Uganda, determined that there was need to find carefully crafted and sensitively implemented ways and means to turn the apparent negative diversity into creative tension and a real opportunity for “unlocking the potential for a more harnessed partnership among Open Data Actors in Uganda”.

This realization compelled us to carry out a mapping of different players in Uganda’s open data ecosystem and create a foundation for a sustainable engagement process among key open data components.

The mapping took place Between January 2015 and December 2015, and involved over 20 organizations implementing a variety of open data initiatives.  The purpose of the mapping was to identify where the actors are located geographically, what they do and the data they deal with, but also determine the level of their inter- and intra collaboration and partnership to improve cohesion and partnership.

Specifically, we wanted to:

  1. Create and popularize a geomap of the known Open Data (OD) players in Uganda
  2. Understand better the drivers of polarization and clique-ism and devise sensitive (non-threatening) modalities to increase synergy among Open Data players (this will include testing out collaboration models that work)
  3. Develop capacity development online guides on building and strengthening partnerships across the ecosystem, materials for new entrants; and provide updates on the wider data revolution debate.

As we had hypothesized, we did indeed find that while there was a significant presence of a variety of open data stakeholders in Uganda;…

  • Most are located in Kampala and other Urban areas, creating a rural-urban digital divide that relegates sub-national level players on the fringes of the open data movement;
  • There is still lack of adequate collaboration and interaction among different open data actors; and
  • There were new players that were not previously known.

The key intervention from the findings was that we created an online database of different open data organizations and their contacts, location and the type of data they work with. This map can be seen on  It is intended to be a platform where Uganda’s Open Data players can find and learn from each other.

We are currently popularizing the platform and planning joint activities in 2016 that will strengthen collaboration among the different Open Data Actors.

Download the full report here