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Will UCC’s new digital skilling campaign fast-track economy?

On July 30, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) in partnership with the Uganda Institute of Information and Communications Technology (UICT) kick-started a nationwide programme to impart digital skills amongst Ugandans.

Just when the Covid-19 pandemic continues to stifle the economy, this initiative to extend information and communications technology (ICT) couldn’t have come at a better time when the world is moving into e-commerce and e-learning, writes DAVID LUMU.

There seems to be no magic bullet yet to fix the negative effects of the Covid-19 pandemic but if there was any positive to takeaway, Covid-19 has awakened people to the importance of digital skills to not only transact business, but also easing work as well as learning new skills.

It is on this background that UCC has fast-tracked its digital skilling programme, noted Irene Kaggwa Sewankambo, the acting executive director UCC, during a special webinar on July 30 to launch the nationwide online digital literacy training.

The multi-billion programme will start with training digital skilling community instructors who will in turn impart digital skills among local communities in Uganda. The online digital training of trainers, therefore, aims to enhance digital skills through training for selected ICT instructors or change agents.

“As the regulators of the sector, ICT skills are a must for today’s life and everybody must be empowered to enjoy the communication services,” she said.

“The question is; how do you ensure that there is no one left behind? This is irrespective of gender, age, geographical location or even level of education. Even someone who didn’t go to school is able to use a smartphone. We believe that if we teach and enable everyone use these ICTs, it will not only increase their being able to buy and use it, but it will also facilitate them to innovate.”

She also noted that as a country, Uganda has many entrepreneurs but most of them are micro to (Small and Medium Enterprises) SMEs.

“Now, these two have opportunities for ICTs because they can use them in their businesses. Even things as easy as mobile money, we have seen how it has had a huge impact on the society. At the end of the day we need to see that transformative effect.”

The programme is to be implemented by UCC’s Rural Communication Development Fund (RCDF) and aims to harness ICT-enabled opportunities for social and economic transformation.

Indeed, the skills to use Information and Communications Technology (ICT) are fundamental for participation in an increasingly digital world. They have been linked, at the individual level, to higher social and economic well-being and, at the national level, to a more dynamic and competitive economy.

The desired digital skills can be understood as the ability to use ICTs in ways that can help individuals to achieve beneficial, high-quality outcomes in everyday life for themselves and others.

Digital skilling also incorporates the extent to which one is able to increase the benefits of ICT use while reducing potential harm associated with the more negative aspects of digital engagement.

HOW IT WILL BE CONDUCTED

Online video conferencing technology will be utilised, involving UICT instructors who are to disseminate content to participants in different training locations.

The training material will be of recognised and certifiable standard and value, such that participants are issued with certificates at the end of their training sessions.

POLICY AND STRATEGY

According to Julius Torach, the commissioner, Information Technology at the ministry of Information and Communications Technology, says different sectors are already coordinating the programme.

“We are collaborating with various ministries to ensure that every aspect of the programme is covered,” said. “We are also looking for different levels of skills targeting specific people, whether it is accounting or lawyers. For instance, when it comes to farmers, we are going to tailor their digital skilling with farming technologies like smartphone applications to help them interact with the market directly.”

He added that UCC is targeting teachers, especially those upcountry as the starting point. This is so because there is a huge digital divide between rural and urban societies.

So, UCC, through RCDF, aims to facilitate universal access to high-capacity broadband for all Ugandans through targeted interventions that address barriers such as location, physical inability, gender and cost.

Women at a workshop on ICTs in Namayingo district

EDUCATION ASPECT

According to Patrick Muinda, the assistant commissioner, Communication and Information Management in the ministry of Education and Sports, the programme is not a one-off and will continue throughout until the country is digitally literate.

“This is a five-year strategic plan to ensure ICTs help in the delivery of education services, research and monitoring. However, this cannot be done without a guiding policy and it is for this that the ministry of Education has embarked on drafting an ICT policy to guide all stakeholders in the sector and align their strategies with UCC’s digital skilling programme,” he said.

“We also have a digital agenda for the education sector to touch on all the subsectors with regard to how education can be delivered or how other business processes within the sector will run while being aided by ICT.”

UICT CONTRIBUTION

Dr Fredrick Kitoogo, the principal UICT, noted that when it comes to digital competence, UICT is focusing on information processing, web-searching, critical thinking, collaborative work and sharing knowledge as well as appropriate selection of knowledge required.

“We intend to provide training of trainers with skills so that they are able to pass on the skills to the people in the communities. So, we intend to bridge the digital divide and the trainers will be from the community, and not from Kampala,” he says.

“The training will involve evaluation and the content will be available for consultation, meaning they will access the materials even when the training is completed. We also expect to have accurate services at village level not to mention that safety is paramount. We have noted that in this Covid-19 period, many people who are new to digital services have been fleeced while trying to buy things off the internet. So, this is something we are going to focus on greatly in the first phase.”

CONTENT MONITORING

Torach says ICT is just not going to be opened without thorough guidance. “We all know the threat of cybercrime and pornography; so, we are going to greatly monitor the entire network and will provide for DNS [Domain Name System] poisoning to stop the pornography. Besides, a DNS firewall on network is always enabled on both ends

THEN AND NOW

In the past, RCDF has been relying on schools with computer laboratory infrastructure as a platform to provide digital literacy skills to the communities around these schools, which has gone a long way to reduce the digital divide in the country.

According to Sewankambo, UCC intends to provide the ICT equipment and laboratories at all community levels countrywide. She also adds that education institutions will not be left behind.

“There is no program from UCC or the ministry of Education and Sports on subsidised selling computers to schools. We will continue equipping government-aided secondary schools with some computers and encouraging them to buy more to cope with their needs. We have started producing phones in Uganda. Operators are also putting in place programmes that enable users to acquire phones on flexible payment plans.”

On how the internet will reach all parts of the country, Sewankambo said other technology solutions have also been considered.  “It is not just about fibre technology. We are trying out satellite or very-small-aperture terminal (VSAT) technology and other wireless technologies.”

TARGET

The main objective of this training programme is to enable the trainees to become people who can work for ICT facilities or operate their own ICT based business ventures.

To date, over 50,000 people in communities across the country have been skilled. In the past, the trainings were conducted through physical presence but with the advent of Covid-19 and thus the need to observe social distancing, a new model is being sought to enable the continuation of digital literacy skilling amongst the local communities in Uganda.

EXPECTED OUTCOME

With digital skills becoming more and more important in the labour market and in everyday life today and in the foreseeable future, it is no longer optional to be digital literate.

Whether the digital skilling will provide an immediate and effective solution to the complexities of ICT remains to be seen but there is no doubt that if implemented well, it will go a long way to address the ICT challenges Ugandans face on a daily basis and could the much-needed stimulus to government’s effort to reduce illiteracy levels to below 10 per cent by 2025.

RCDF boss Nyombi Thembo offers an insight into the digital skilling concept

The digital skilling initiative is informed by research and starts with broadband services. This basically involves people using ICT to do work, research, e-commerce and many other things. In fact, the broadband uptake has four aspects.

CONNECTIVITY

This must be ubiquitous, meaning it must be everywhere all the time. In Uganda, 3G connectivity is approaching 80 per cent of population coverage. However, the new broadband policy requires all telecoms to move from population coverage to geographical coverage as a licencing condition.

CONTENT

There is so much content in ICT that it cannot be exhausted. However, we are ensuring that we provide the necessary content for people’s immediate needs.

DEVICES

This has been a very big problem in the past because smartphones have been expensive but that has drastically changed. Over the past three years, the price of a basic smartphone has dropped from around Shs 350,000 to Shs 70,000; so, smartphones are becoming more affordable.

DIGITAL LITERACY 

You can have all the facilities but literacy levels affect someone’s use of ICT optimally, especially people in rural areas.

A number of them have acquired smartphones but lack the skills to fully utilise them even to the level of having an internet address. As you know, if you do not have an internet address, your digital transactions are greatly limited.

There are also basic apps that people need to take advantage of like weather forecast, using social media to advertise. So, we have an obligation to educate people about the benefits of these things.

TIMEFRAME

We are approaching it on four fronts. There is the informal sector like people who operate as market vendors and we expect to reach 30,000 people.

The second front with UICT, we are training 500 trainers of trainers and we expect to reach 50,000 people. We shall also identify change agents to help others in markets.

Two weeks ago, we launched a special package for the disabled people and we expect to reach out to 5,000. We are doing this through our partnership with National Union of Women with Disabilities of Uganda (NUWODU).

Lastly, the small and medium enterprises. We are reaching them out at the company level and over the past two years, we have worked with more than 5,000 SMEs and in this financial year, we will reach out to 2,000 of them. We are going to offer them devices.

All in all, in the next three years, we are targeting to add one million Ugandans to the ICT network.

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