ICT sector to slow down as Uganda bans used PCs

Monday June 29 2009

By ESTHER NAKKAZI

Players in Uganda’s Information Communication Technology sector have warned that the sector’s growth could be stunted following a ban on the importation of used computers.

In her budget speech on June 11, Finance Minister Syda Bbumba banned the importation of used computers, freezers and refrigerators to protect the environment but extended a three-month moratorium for goods in transit and in bonded warehouses to be cleared.

The ban came on the eve of the arrival in Mombasa of the East African Submarine Cable System fibre cable connecting East Africa to the rest of the world. The region is expecting faster Internet connectivity.

The Kenya government-led TEAMS landed in Mombasa a fortnight ago.

“We have a duty to protect our environment and we cannot relax on this front. Together we can safeguard our environment or else we shall pay an immense price in the future,” the Minister said.

The ICT sector in Uganda has been abuzz with Online forums since the minister’s announcement.

I-Network Uganda, one of the online forums said that the ban will limit computer usage as very few Ugandans can afford new computers and that it will cripple ICT investments which had started to grow.

The forum instead suggested regulations and the establishment of an electronic waste disposal facility, which however are both regarded as expensive alternatives.

Submissions on the I-Network showed a preference of regulation rather than a ban on used computers.

Just last year, investment expenditure in the sector by private and public entities was $230 million, up from $70 million in 2006/07.

“Let us advocate for new and affordable computers. Why can’t we think of assembling them in Uganda instead of importing junk,” said Aramanzan Madanda, assistant lecturer, Department of Women & Gender Studies at the Makerere University.

Kato William Bitarabeho of Data Fundi who is against importation of refurbished computers said Uganda has a fragile ICT industry and supporting the importation of refurbished computers suffocates the business process outsourcing industry, which needs good and fast machines to be able to compete with the rest of the world.

With a 200 per cent plus increase in a year, mainly pushed by telephony but also strongly supported by Internet and data services that are powered by computers, the ban could ruin the progress in the growth of ICT in the country.

“Not many Ugandans can afford brand new computers. I agree on regulation of trade in used computers but I am not sure we will be able to get PCs to even 10 per cent of Ugandans if we are to buy brand new. I would suggest we walk before start running,” said Frank Mutaremwa a Kampala-based IT expert.

Others are of the opinion that the government is better off creating an e-waste facility similar to the one in Mombasa, Kenya, rather than banning old computers altogether, arguing that old cars are worse pollutants.

In developed countries old computers are recycled.

“We can combine a proper accredited disposal facility, together with tax incentives and a system where you pay the disposal fee upon purchase, and collect it upon delivering the hardware at the e-waste center,” said Reinier Battenberg, director Mountbatten Ltd.

We could create advantage rather than merely banning cheap ICT hardware. Uganda is still behind in ICT and the ban on importing used computers will only make it worse, without solving the problem,” said Mr Battenberg.

David Leyssens from Close the Gap said that their research has shown that there is a great need for refurbished computers in Uganda.

Close the Gap is a Belgian organisation that is helping to bridge the digital divide in the world by offering high-quality refurbished computers to IT projects in the world at cost price.

Old computers contain hazardous materials like lead, mercury and cadmium that have toxic effects on the environment if they end up in landfills.

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