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Uganda’s tech minister lambasts Facebook in discussion on social media’s relevance to digital economy

Social media cannot be wished away and governments must leverage benefits but protect citizens from the negative aspects. It has given rise to citizen journalism that is unregulated and is used as a mechanism to spread false information.

This is according to Dr Chris Baryoumunsi, Uganda’s Minister for ICT and National Guidance, who formed part of a panel organised at the Ministerial Forum for Developing Africa’s Digital Economy, hosted by Huawei on the sidelines of the annual 2022 AfricaCom event in Cape Town this week.

He singled out Facebook and said during the country’s general election the social network took a partisan position in the politics of Uganda and “forced the government to shut it down because they were against the ruling party, criticising the manifesto and shutting down the accounts of ruling party officials.”

“We are saying a platform like Facebook should be non-partisan and should not be part of local politics… there is a need to strike a balance between freedom of expression and also regulation.”

John Omo, Secretary-General of the African Telecommunications Union (ATU) said while much depended on the policies adopted by governments, social media is here to stay and inextricably linked to employment, especially among the youth.

“Over 40% of mobile phone users in Africa use their devices to access to social media. There has been a discourse between traditional network operators and the social media space. That discourse is healthy… traditional network operators offer the pipe to accommodate ‘the social media’ water, which is increasing. It is for me an important segment of content development that we must nurture in our governments. For us of course, there are certain parts of Africa that is clamping down on social media. There has to be a delicate balance with freedom of speech, which we all recognise as important, without affecting the integrity of people and systems. Our governments have to focus on that space with policies that enable our young people to generate social media content and monetise them.”

Digital economy

Omo added that while Africa has made some progress in efforts to develop digital economies, it is still way lower than global averages linked to ICT advances.

He said there is a shared view that collaboration is needed to resolve the challenges around digital opportunities in Africa.

According to Omo a World Bank study conducted four or five years ago estimated that it would take over US$100-trillion to achieve digital transformation in Africa alone.

“The power of policy making, the power of regulation, the power of investment, the power of consumers is indeed what we can bring all together in a framework that drives all of us to see how we can put US$100-trillion into this continent in order to drive our digital transformation. The burden of an economically advanced Africa is not one that should be shouldered by anyone outside this continent.”

Leo Chen, President of Huawei Southern Africa Region, said a digital economy incorporates three aspects: digital infrastructure, digital applications and services, and digital literacy.

These aspects are layered on top of each other and the result is a digital economy can help heal some of the economic impacts of COVID-19.

He said there is exciting evidence of progress. In South Africa online spending grew by 42% in 2021 and in Uganda, broad access to mobile phones and low cost structures has seen mobile money become the main driver of the formal economy.

Chen added that according to research by Brookings mobile technology and services has generated 1.7 million direct jobs, contributed 8.5% towards Sub-Saharan Africa's GDP and generated US$15.6-billion for the public sector through taxation.

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