In Conversation: Pontsho Pusoetsile (Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Communications, Knowledge and Technology)

BW TechZone caught up with Pontsho Pusoetsile, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Communications, Knowledge and Technology, in a conversation about SmartBots, Botswana's digital economy ambitions, bridging the connectivity gap and Starlink.

What role do you think government initiatives like SmartBots can play in bridging the digital divide in Botswana?

Currently, around 300,000 people daily use SmartBots which shows how much of an impact it is having in helping to connect our people to the internet. The goal is to ensure that eventually most if not all Batswana, no matter how remote their dwellings are, can have access to connectivity.

What challenges have connectivity initiatives such as SmartBots had in achieving their mandate?

The biggest challenge is that Botswana's population is small and sparsely distributed, especially in rural areas. This makes the delivery of connectivity services quite expensive and remember that these services are vital for the country's knowledge-based economy drive.

But that is a challenge we cannot hide behind because at the end of the day, the mission remains the same which is to connect our people. To traverse our way through this challenge, we are working on partnering with international partners to try and help us cover as many Batswana as possible.

The other challenge, which is more private sector facing, is that we want a lot of these gadgets for connectivity to be made in the country. Obviously, we have a few local companies trying their hand at this but we want to scale this so challenge our local innovators and investors to start investing in this domain.

And then last but not least is the challenge of ensuring that as we forge ahead with connectivity initiatives, we ensure that most Botswana can afford them. An example I can give is regarding 5G connectivity where we have seen that as we roll out the technology, most citizens cannot afford most 5G-ready devices. It's another area where we feel there is an opportunity for the private sector to come in and start providing 5g Ready devices that are affordable in the region. And I'm using the word region deliberately, because we're not looking at just innovators who will want to service only the Botswana market but being export-minded and supplying the region with affordable 5G devices.

What role do you think technologies such as Starlink can also play in helping to connect Batswana?

Low-orbit satellite providers such as Starlink will help in providing connectivity to hard-to-reach areas which is vital in fostering inclusive connectivity. This type of technology can help service different sectors including tourism, research, geological mapping and others which take place in far-flung areas.   

Of course, as a government, our mandate is still to connect our people while being as inclusive as we possibly can. Services such as Starlink can then come in to offer connectivity to people who are perhaps looking for more premium internet services be it in urban or rural areas.

Anything else you would like to add

For us, our biggest mission is to connect all the settlements in the country. From there, we then want to move to the concentrated farming areas, where there's a lot of farming and tourism activity. And those are the next stages for us once we are done with connecting the current settlements. 

Besides just the internet, we also want to ensure that we provide equipment in schools as well as push to roll out eHealth solutions in our public clinics and hospitals. And then lastly, we are looking at making the whole economy digital, not just government. We currently have a couple of initiatives in the pipeline which i believe will propel our digital economy ambitions forward once they launch so watch this space.

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