Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Embracing Technology Critical to National Development
April 27, 2016
Christopher Farai Charamba

From the invention of the wheel to mobile applications, technology has contributed to making human life easier. Be it computerisation of systems or the mechanisation of farming, people have become more efficient due to the use of technology.

In the last generation, technology has advanced at a rate faster than ever in human history. Some of the devices we rely on daily did not exist 30 years ago, so some of the jobs that exist today were inconceivable in the 1990s.

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), “technology is perhaps the greatest agent of change in the modern world. While never without risk, technological breakthroughs promise innovative solutions to the most pressing global challenges of our time.”

The year 2015 was of interesting technological advances. The WEF compiled a list of ten emerging technologies from fuel cell vehicles to artificial intelligence that can mimic the human brain as well as drones that can fly themselves.

Africa, too, has been a beneficiary of global tech advances and has adapted the technology to best suit local conditions. On a continent where many people do not have traditional bank accounts or easy access to banks, mobile money has revolutionised the manner in which people conduct their business and has contributed to creating a functioning and reliable cashless society. Services like M-Pesa in Kenya and EcoCash in Zimbabwe, are very popular and convenient for the masses as all one needs is a cellphone to access the services. In 2015, Econet reported that $11 billion had moved through EcoCash over a four-year period. To put this into perspective, divided annually, the figure would be more than the 2011 National Budget and slightly under the current Budget.

The importance of technology therefore cannot be overstated and though Zimbabwe has embraced some of the innovations, the country still lags behind in many of the basic aspects. For a country said to have some of the most educated people on the continent, Zimbabwe’s online presence for starters is a poor reflection of how 21st century innovative and smart the people are.

It is surprising how inefficient the University of Zimbabwe’s online systems are. In 2016, when applying to the nation’s flagship university one has to do double entry in the form of a physical and online application.

The difficulty is that the online application can only be done at the university’s computer centre as access remotely is either terribly slow or completely unavailable. Accessing the university’s website from off campus is itself a great challenge and therefore forces one to go directly to the university to source information.

This is problematic especially when marketing the university to the outside world. Marketing and branding are an important part of any organisation in the modern era and a strong online presence is a critical component of that campaign.

Similar issues are faced with websites for other universities in the country. It begs the question as to whether Zimbabwe is a competitor in the technology field if the primary institutions of research in the country fail to build functional, world class websites.

To be fair to the institutions, this is just a reflection of a wider national problem. Zimbabwe’s Internet presence in terms of public offices is paltry. Part of the problem is the fact that a lot of the services that should be computerised are still handled manually. A name search at the Companies’ Registry is done by hand though the Government has taken measures by amending the Deeds Registries Act to computerise their database.

A trip to the National Archives will have one searching for their information by hand rather than sitting in front of a computer which can pull up numerous options under a particular theme. One wonders why in 2016, there are no digital copies in the archives or why one must manually search via index cards for a particular resource.

While the world moves towards paperless transactions facilitated by online use, Zimbabwe remains stuck in the past having to physically trek from office to office or department to department to source information or submit applications.

The Government has failed to even provide quality, functioning websites and online services for itself. This, despite the fact that there is a whole Ministry of Information Communication Technology, which should be carrying out these functions.

Averting the risk of sounding myopic, credit must be given where it is due as some Government websites do perform the requisite functions. One that should be noted is the Parliament website which aside from lack of aesthetic appeal is easy to use and has most of the functions one needs including access to Acts, Hansard and Bills. Other Government departments should take a page out of the Parliament’s book on how to function in the 21st Century. Access to information is a cornerstone of democracy and it should be the Government’s job to facilitate easier access to information particularly public information.

At a time when everything is, but a click away, the Government must take advantage of technological advances and get up to speed on how these things work and how best they can assist the country. Technology should be embraced rather than feared and shunned.

In Kenya, Africa’s tech hub, they are using drones to deliver medicine to and collect blood samples from some of the more remote areas in the country.

Zimbabwe is not far behind in terms of what it can achieve should there be the will to do so. The country already has fibre and 4G Internet connectivity and with sound education and high literacy rates, the country can certainly advance at a much faster pace than it is currently doing.

Some aspects of Government have shown the requisite will to develop interest and focus on technology in Zimbabwe. The initiative to register Advanced Level STEM students facilitated by the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development is one such move that bodes well for the future of technology in Zimbabwe.

By contrast, the Government’s desire to clamp down on social media or rather what it terms the abuse of social media is retrogressive. While people should be expected to conduct themselves with a certain level of decorum on public platforms, they are protected by their freedom of expression within the confines of the constitution.

Unless social media poses a genuine threat to national security or is seen as a violation of rights there is no reason for the Government to close down these networks. In fact, the Government should make itself more accessible on these platforms and use them to engage citizens more directly and even influence the narrative.

Social media is an important tool in the 21st Century. Applications like Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin have altered the way people view each other, conduct and market themselves and have contributed to making the world a smaller place.

Rather than fight against them and other technological advances it is important to embrace them and use them to one’s advantage.

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