Today as promised; SMEZIM attended a breakfast dialogue meeting held by Post and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) and the Ministry of Information Communication Technology, Postal and Courier Services (MICTPCS) at Crowne Plaza. The breakfast meeting was a ICT Fund pre-launch dialogue to share ideas and map a road-map of how the fund will work and drum-up support and attention from local innovators and stakeholders.
Opening the event, Perm Sec in MICTPCS Engineer Sam Kundishora highlighted the need to “think outside the box” and come up with new ideas to solve problems around us. Minister of ICT, Postal and Courier Services Hon. Supa Mandawanzira then gave an insightful presentation into the formation of the fund. The fund is a direct child of the Universal Services Fund (USF) which earns levies from telecommunications companies. The fund was created after telecoms companies experienced a drop in network calls and revenues thereof to Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) technology being championed by apps such as WhatsApp, Skype, Viber etc. Indirectly the government also loses money through lower levies which are charged as a direct percentage of the revenues of telecoms companies.
Not only is the issue of VOIP eating into telecom companies a Zimbabwean problem; but a global one, also affecting MTN and other reputable telecoms companies. The Minister lamented that the biggest winners are the USA based companies who are earning money from subscriptions of the local Zimbabweans from these VOIP apps. At the same time there are a number of Zimbabweans working at these Silicon Valley based Tech-companies and the Minister reiterated that the fund seeks to have these ICT engineers come back home and create solutions to our local problems and access funding from this fund to develop their ideas.
The aim of the fund will be to identify tech start-ups and ideas which, the fund can either invest as equity partners or through grants. The idea behind this being; if these tech start ups offer alternative ways for the telecoms companies to increase their revenues; then they can diversify their revenue base and not rely on voice calls as the main source of income. Minister Mandiwanzira stressed to all innovators present that for projects to qualify for funding they have to be commercially viable so that there is economic value to be derived from the project
Discussions with fellow stakeholders after the meeting echoed the sentiments that people doubt that the project objectives will ever be realised bearing in mind that this is not the first time this fund has been launched without any fruits. The lack of a definite launch date and a clear framework of how the grants and investments will be awarded adds to the fears that some stakeholders have whether this fund will ever see the light of day. The indications made by the Minister that the adjudication body will made up of POTRAZ officials and Telecom companies officials raises issues of independence and objectivity. It would be encouraging if the body has the majority of its members being independent professionals appointed by an independent local consultant (internationally accredited).
That said, today’s pre-launch breakfast dialogue was a positive step in the right direction and we await the official launch which will hopefully shed more light on how this fund will work.