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On the Spot – Namibia’s Road to Digital Transformation

To explore digital transformation opportunities and learn from global leaders, Namibia recently participated in Estonia’s 9th e-governance conference in Tallinn. The conference, which attracted lawmakers, policy implementers and delegates from 90 countries worldwide, provided a platform for knowledge exchange and collaboration on effective digital governance. 

Among the attendees was Namibia’s Deputy Minister of Information Communication and Technology Emma Theofelus (ET). 

She shared her insights and plans for Namibia’s digital transformation during an interview with New Era’s reporter Aletta Shikololo (AS). The conference served as a valuable resource for Namibia, as it seeks to harness the power of technology to drive innovation and enhance governance systems within the country.

AS: What is the current status of Namibia in terms of digital transformation?

ET: Namibia is embarking on a digital transformation journey to modernise various aspects of the country. Last year, significant progress was made when the minister of ICT spearheaded the passing of the Access to Information Act. This legislation catalyses to expedite the dissemination of government information to the public, employing a highly consultative approach. It covers many areas, including new government initiatives, legislation, policies, programmes and activities.

For a considerable period, individuals had been requesting a more efficient way to obtain national documents, such as identification cards, passports and other forms of identification. Addressing this need, the Ministry of Home Affairs, Immigration, and Safety and Security recently announced that they have successfully implemented an online passport application system. This marks a significant step towards providing government services related to home affairs through digital channels. The announcement was met with great enthusiasm, representing the ministry’s commitment to informing the nation about its plans to expand online services. Additionally, they acquired a new building and introduced various services to enhance their operations in this area. The new facility incorporates a comprehensive system to assist citizens in better understanding the available services.

Building upon the momentum of this legislative breakthrough and drawing from our experiences at the Ministry of ICT in working alongside the public and improving communication, we perceive an opportunity to communicate our vision more effectively. We aim to educate the nation about our digital transformation objectives. We envision a future where Namibia becomes a digitally transformed nation, and we are dedicated to realising this vision.

AS: To what extent is Namibia prepared and equipped for digital transformation?

ET: In March, we welcomed a delegation from Estonia and engaged in extensive communication to ensure their understanding of our collaborative efforts towards digital transformation. We anticipate signing a memorandum of understanding or agreement with Estonia soon to bring government services online. Following their visit, our Prime Minister met with the Estonian president during the UK coronation of the King. Each step has been taken to prepare our nation for digital transformation progressively. Post-Covid-19, we have learned valuable lessons in communication and have made significant efforts to inform our citizens about the government’s plans and motivations. While we understand perfection is elusive and questions and doubts may arise, continuous communication has proven effective. We emphasise our commitment to moving towards digital transformation, which may involve changes, such as transitioning from physical to digital identification documents, applying for passports online or adopting alternative methods for license renewal. The nation has generally been receptive to these changes, and we are dedicated to gradually preparing them for the upcoming transformations. This communication strategy is an integral part of our ministry’s approach.

AS: From a continental standpoint, what is the current status of digital transformation? Furthermore, how is Namibia actively contributing to and collaborating with other African countries to tackle the shared challenges the entire continent faces? Additionally, it would be helpful to include an assessment of whether we are genuinely prepared for a digital transformation at the continental level.

ET: It is true that Africa still has a long way to go regarding connectivity and infrastructure development in many countries. Bridging the digital divide remains a significant goal. However, we cannot afford to ignore or delay the digital transformation. It must progress alongside other developmental plans. We acknowledge much work to be done regarding infrastructure building and investment. Nonetheless, we must pursue digital advancement in parallel with our other endeavours. In terms of readiness, this question has also been raised at the country level, questioning the push for a digital agenda when basic services are lacking. 

Allow me to provide some perspective. Before the era of telephone lines, different worlds existed. It is challenging for any of us to recall a time before Europe transitioned to mobile connectivity. In contrast, Africa was able to leapfrog through the various phases and achieve significant mobile penetration. Imagine if, at that time, the argument was made that Africa should not have mobile phones because basic services were lacking. Where would we be now? Similarly, as we look at the digital transformation unfolding in Africa today, it becomes clear that asking whether we are ready or not is no longer a valid question. We must be ready because failure to do so will leave us behind. Whether it pertains to infrastructure, skills or investment, we have no alternative but to prepare ourselves. If we are not ready, we must actively work towards readiness.

AS: What is the potential for foreign investors and tech companies to contribute to both Namibia’s and the continent’s digital transformation agenda by focusing on the opportunities available.

ET: We acknowledge the importance of foreign direct investment (FDI) for our countries, but it should be distinct from the previous forms of FDI received on the continent. This applies to various sectors, including mining and finance. Currently, there appears to be a lack of a clear roadmap or strategy for FDI on the continent, at least from my perspective as Deputy Minister of ICT. It is crucial for us to develop a framework for working with partners who invest in our African tech spaces. Many solutions that are developed here ultimately leave the continent because we are not adequately prepared to adopt them. Therefore, it is essential to approach foreign direct investments in African tech solutions with caution. We want these solutions to align with Africa’s way of life and address our specific needs. 

Additionally, we aim to retain these solutions within Africa and ensure there is knowledge and skills transfer to African companies, as well as to our young tech experts and professionals. This will allow us to keep the expertise within the continent, instead of consistently offshoring it. While we welcome FDI, we seek a collaborative approach that goes beyond being mere recipients of investments. We want to be partners in the process, working together to make these tech solutions beneficial for Africa. Rather than allowing resources, talent and money to be extracted from the continent, we want to establish an investment framework where mutual benefits are realised and African interests are preserved.

AS: Namibia is eager to advance its digital transformation as rapidly as possible. In the event that its neighbouring countries or the continent are not prepared, how much progress can Namibia achieve on its own?

ET: In the absence of regional synergies, such as those seen in SADC or the African continent, Estonia stands as a prime example. Estonia was able to advance its digitalisation without relying on neighbouring countries or Europe to catch up. They took the initiative to explore and test various systems, setting a precedent for others to follow. I believe that if we possess the courage to venture into uncharted territories and experiment, the rest of the continent will likely follow suit. The SADC region, given its numerous similarities and close trading relationships, is an ideal starting point. 

We can lead by example in areas such as trade and movement. We don’t have to wait for external influences; many of our countries have already shown they can forge ahead and inspire others. South Africa, for example, was the first to adopt 5G technology, with nearly every other African country following suit, except for Malawi, as far as I know. This illustrates the surging impact of technology. Therefore, I believe that if we are daring enough and move swiftly, we can achieve remarkable progress.

AS: Is ensuring digital transformation a priority for Namibia amidst its challenges with unemployment and economic issues, and what measures does the ministry take to prioritise it or facilitate the process?

ET: The ministry considers it a top priority, and I believe this extends to the entire country. This is evident from the fact President Hage Geingob established a task force focused on the fourth industrial revolution, aiming to expedite our digital transformation journey. Hence, there is clear political will from the highest office, indicating an increasing priority in this regard. However, it is crucial to allocate the necessary financial resources to match our aspirations. This necessitates the development of a comprehensive roadmap that outlines our goals and strategies. To this end, we are actively seeking knowledge and experiences from Estonia during our participation in this conference. By doing so, we aim to avoid wasteful expenditure of taxpayer money and create a well-defined plan that will guide us in implementing digital transformation in a cost-effective manner. Our objective is to ensure that every dollar is utilised to its fullest potential, facilitating the development of a digitally literate and transformed nation. While it is indeed a priority, even at the highest level of government, we acknowledge the need to cultivate a robust plan for its successful implementation. 

AS: How do you envision Namibia’s digital transformation in the next 15 years? Can you describe what you see for Namibia’s future in terms of digital advancements?

ET: In the next 15 years, as we approach Vision 2030 and potentially develop a revised vision for Namibia, I anticipate a significant digital transformation. With 60% of the population being young individuals under the age of 30, I envision a future where Namibians are more connected, digitally literate and empowered to engage in online e-commerce without constraints. 

They will have the freedom to work remotely from anywhere in the world, leveraging the country’s connectivity. Moreover, these individuals will possess the necessary skills and resources to utilise technology in addressing Namibia’s challenges and creating innovative solutions. Although not every citizen may benefit, I believe that at least 60% of the population under the age of 30 will experience this digital reality within the given

Source: New Era Live