Bridging the digital divide to empower rural Tanzania

The minister for Information, Communication and Technology, Mr Nape Nnauye, speaks during a recent event.  PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • An agreement made late last month between UCSAF and telecom giants Vodacom, Tigo, Airtel, Halotel, and TTCL calls for the construction of 758 towers across Tanzania’s mainland

Dar es Salaam. For the past two years, Tanzania has been taking bold steps to accelerate economic growth, create jobs, improve service delivery, and empower the rural population through digital transformation.

In order to bridge the digital divide and ensure access to communication services for all, the government, through the Universal Communications Services Access Fund (UCSAF), has built and upgraded communication towers across the country.

Whereas, a total of 758 towers are intended to be built in all 26 regions of Tanzania’s mainland in an agreement between UCSAF and telecoms companies Vodacom, Tigo, Airtel, Halotel, and TTCL, which was reached late last month.

In another step, 77 towers in 77 wards were upgraded to 3G. Through this project, Vodacom upgraded 20 towers, Airtel has 37 towers, and Tigo has 20 towers. Speaking during the signing event, President Samia Suluhu Hassan asserted that the project will help solve the communication challenges in rural areas, as about 8.5 million Tanzanians will have access to communication services after completion. Tanzania Telecommunications Corporation (TTCL) will build 104 towers, Vodacom will build 190 towers, Airtel will build 168 towers, Tigo will build 262 towers, and Halotel will build 34 towers.

“I have been to many places across the country; some villages in regions such as Lindi have low network coverage, hence services such as mobile money are very limited,” shared Mr Saleh Mohammed, a journalist with Mwananchi newspaper.

The Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) works closely with UCSAF to identify areas with poor coverage, including islands in Lake Victoria and the Indian Ocean around Unguja and Pemba. TCRA’s first quarter report shows that Dar es Salaam has the highest telecom service penetration rate compared to all other regions at 17.71 percent, followed by Mwanza and Arusha with 6.2 percent and 6.01 percent, respectively.

Katavi, Rukwa, Lindi, and Njombe are the regions with the lowest penetration rates on the Tanzanian mainland. Digital Transformation in Rural Tanzania In a quest to achieve a digital economy, experts say connectivity is key. Access to devices and affordable and high-quality Internet connectivity in both urban and rural areas are important building blocks for empowering citizens to fully participate in the economy and society’s development. Joyce Msigwa, a primary school teacher and a resident of Chunyu village in Mpwapwa, Dodoma, enjoys digital technologies, including gadgets, digital education tools, and financial services such as Vodacom Mpesa, Airtel Timiza, M-Koba, and the like, despite living in a remote area.

“The majority of teachers own smartphones, and we use iPads to teach pupils in class and access government systems digitally, which is simply things,” said Ms Msigwa.

She added that the only challenge is the entire community, where the majority own dumbphones because they are easily accessible and sold at lower prices, and most people are still ignorant of the use of the internet.

“Since one can access financial services such as Mpesa and Mkoba without internet access, not many citizens use or own smartphones. Apart from teaching purposes, most people use the internet for social reasons,” added Ms Msigwa.

Like most rural areas in Tanzania, the majority of the population in Chunyu village are farmers. As per Ms Msigwa’s experience, a farmer has no access to weather reports; she relies solely on rainfall to grow her crops. “Radio is most common in our village; if such information is not broadcast, farmers have a very limited chance of accessing agriculture-related information.”

She said smartphone penetration is higher in urban areas than in rural areas, as one of the hindrances in rural areas is literacy levels.

Many older people struggle to use smartphones, while those with little education are wary of such technologies. But both at work and in personal life, digital technologies via voice, messaging, video, and data-sharing tools are crucial.

Ms Msigwa suggests digital training be offered to communities in rural areas, especially to farmers and the older generation, on how to use these customizable features for economic growth.

 “Since most farmers own basic phones, digitalized services like telemedicine, weather predictions, and agronomic advice might be created specifically for these phones,” advised Ms Msigwa. When digital technologies better meet the needs of people, households, and firms, demand for their use also increases, making internet expansion more commercially viable, which in turn supports an effective digitally transformed economy.

For her part, Ms Julieth Samwel, community development officer and farmer, understands the importance of digital technologies beyond teaching aid and social media.

She and her fellow women at Msitu wa Tembo, in Moshi, Kilimanjaro, use digital tools to boost and facilitate their farming activities more precisely, efficiently, and sustainably. “We mostly sell our products to the neighbouring country, Kenya, or at the border. We have to keep up with technology development and make sure our activities are data-driven; that helps in decision-making as to what, when, and how to go to market,” said Ms Samwel.

She further explained how digital technologies, such as financial services and digital agriculture solutions, stimulate business activities within her village.

“And easily connect farmers with the relevant markets and technologies that provide useful information to us. We don’t have to carry cash with us since there is ‘Pay by Phone’ service and mobile money, and at times we receive orders through online platforms prior to going to the market,” added Ms Samwel. But infrastructure in Msitu wa Tembo village is still a challenge, as explained by Ms Samwel. She said that there are adequate social services such as schools, a village hospital, water, and electricity, but the roads to those services are very poor.

“That also affects our economic activities. One might receive an online order for a certain product, but transporting such a product from the vendor to the customer can cost more than the product itself since our inroads are very poor,” appealed to boost usage, governments should establish infrastructure that supports the development of more attractive digital solutions, as suggested by Ms Samwel and Ms Msigwa.