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Opinions of Wednesday, 4 December 2019


The making of digital Ghana

Digitization has become such a far reaching, common-place phenomenon in Ghana Digitization has become such a far reaching, common-place phenomenon in Ghana

Digitization has become such a far reaching, common-place phenomenon in Ghana that it is now often taken for granted. Digital services, provided by smart phone or laptop computer are used by the minute for an array of activities ranging from the basic, such as communication to the highly sophisticated such as paying corporate employees across branches located nationwide.

Unsurprisingly, the private sector has led this drive in typical fashion using the digital technology revolution to introduce all sorts of new services, improve the customer-convenience of their product and service delivery channels, become more internally efficient and ultimately to improve profitability.

But over the past three years, the public sector has not been far behind – the President Nana Akuffo-Addo administration has made digitization a centre piece of its own development and socio-economic service delivery efforts, while offering policy and facilitation support to the private sector’s efforts too.

Thus, while the average Ghanaian has already become so used to digital telecom and financial services, for instance, he or she is only now coming to terms with the use of digital channels for interfacing with government and its agencies across all sorts of activities. Interestingly though, even as many people are already being made dizzy with the rate at which their everyday activities are going digital and new activities are being offered, this is just the beginning; new products and services and new ways of delivering them are being made possible by digital technology by the day. And just as importantly, government itself is using digitization to reinvent the way it interacts with its citizens.

Perhaps the best example of how this is happening can be found in the arena of electronic commerce in Ghana. A decade ago, the biggest challenge facing proponents of electronic payments for retail sales transactions was that of equipping merchants with bulky, expensive point of sales machines, requisite for verifying the authenticity of electronic payments.

Today however, mobile money, as offered on the three largest mobile telecom networks, along with a host of related electronic payment platforms designed by banks and financial technology firms (more popularly known simply as fintechs), can be used to make electronic payments instantly. Importantly, since last year, an initiative by government in conjunction with the Bank of Ghana’s dedicated electronic payments subsidiary, Ghana Interbank Payments and Settlements Services (GhIPSS) has allowed for interoperability of the various mobile money platforms and has linked them to customers bank accounts.

A couple of years, a major step forward was taken when Ecobank Ghana introduced a new payments platform requiring just the use of a QR code scanned by one’s smart phone to verify merchant payments, providing a convenient alternative to mobile money payment platforms. Since then several other banks have launched similar platforms.

The next step, again initiated by government itself, will involve the introduction of a universal QR code platform which links all potential buyers and sellers of goods and services in Ghana under one single platform. This platform, which Vice President Dr Mahamudu Bawumia promises will be up and running before the end of this year, will effectively make the need for point of sales devices redundant.

Indeed, although the private sector has led the digitization drive in Ghana in terms of application of digital technologies, it is government itself that has taken up the mantle with regards to the basic national data and infrastructure required by users of digital technologies.

At the core of this are two major initiatives – the national identification cards initiative and the digital addressing system. Between these two programmes it will, going forward, be possible to identify everyone resident in Ghana and where they live and work.;

The issuance of national ID cards has been in the pipeline for well over a decade but it is only over the past couple of years that concrete progress has been made towards actually issuing them. A nationwide roll-out exercise began this year and government now claims that by the end of the first quarter of 2020 all residents in Ghana who are over 15 years of age will have been issued cards.

Tied to this initiative is the roll-out of a national digital address system, begun in 2017 which aims to provide unique digital addresses for every piece of land of five by five metres or bigger. The spatial framework has been completed and members of government’s National Builders Corps are now tagging every property around the country with a unique digital address, a process expected to identify four million homes and offices.

The practical uses to which these two initiatives, in tandem., can be put are potentially transformational. For instance it gives government the potential to draw the huge informal sector, comprising four fifths of Ghana’s total work force into the income tax net. So far government has had to rely primarily on consumption taxes to get revenues out of the informal sector and this has resulted in a tax to Gross Domestic Product ratio of just 13 percent, which is barely half of the 25 percent average for middle income nations worldwide.

Just as importantly it will enable government to plan more accurately and more precisely target its delivery of public goods and services.

For example government is preparing to deploy 307 ambulances nationwide imminently, with each parliamentary constituency getting at least one ambulance. Digital addressing will allow for each to be fitted with a digital tablet that has a digital map of the particular constituency it serves which consequently will enable quick response time to requests for emergency medical assistance.

An even bigger benefit of digitization in Ghana’s health sector is the ongoing introduction of paperless public healthcare delivery. This initiative, already being introduced in prime public health facilities such as Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital and 37 Military Hospital, both in Accra, as well as several institutions in the Central Region, will eventually be rolled out everywhere, even down to CHIPS compounds nationwide, and will enable patients medical records to be accessed from any public health facility nationwide. This means a citizen can still get well informed medical care no matter where he or she may be at any particular time.

Paperless healthcare is coming on the back of a hugely successful paperless ports initiative, introduced in late 2017, which has largely eliminated the need for human interface – which has been the source of stupendous corruption in the past – in the clearing of goods at Ghana’s ports of entry. Stiff opposition to the initiative initially by private and public sector operators at the ports, was originally interpreted as evidence of a policy failure, but it has since emerged that the protests were primarily those of vested interests who had been benefitting in various ways from corruption at the ports which the paperless system has curbed. The ultimate result has been a major increase in public revenues derived from import duties and a reduction in the importation of goods under illegal terms and conditions.

Encouraged by this, government is now preparing to launch perhaps its most ambitious digital e-governance initiatives to date – the replacement of all cash payments for public goods and services with electronic payments This will work along the lines of the paperless ports system but is being expanded to cover ever type of payment to government, thus ending the payment of cash for public goods and services. The new system is expected to commence from some time next year.

This is expected to not only curb corruption but also to encourage citizens to fulfill their civic obligations. For instance, petty traders at some markets in Accra recently made a formal complaint to government that they were reluctant to pay their income taxes because they had good reason to believe that what they were paying to government tax officials who came to the markets to collect them was not being passed on to the proper authorities. On line payments, say by mobile money or scanned QR Codes will eliminate this mistrust and thus increase tax compliance. The only losers in the new system will be corrupt public officials who divert monies meant for the public purse into their own pockets; and their private sector business collaborators, and individuals who bribe such officials in order to evade or reduce their fiscal obligations to government.

The other major digital initiative by government is scheduled to commence even more imminently, by January next year. This is the coming on line of a one stop shop portal through which businesses, institutions and households alike can access every service offered by government institutions and agencies online. To be addressed as, it will provide access to all government services from one portal. This initiative derives largely from the success achieved through the digitization of business registration services by the Registrar Generals Department, which has significantly lowered the cost and time used by business promoters to register their respective businesses.

Indeed, the problem of having to interface with too many different government agencies, each with its own channels of access has been a major complaint of Ghana’s private sector, especially foreign investors. The new portal has the potential to greatly simplify the processes for securing every type of public good or service.

Yet another pivotal ongoing public sector digital initiative is the digitization of land records, which holds the promise of revolutionizing the efficiency of the hugely problematic land administration in Ghana. Now, the lands registry is being digitized and a digital, updated land map is being drawn up. Instructively this is the first revision of Ghana’s land map in 40 years. By making land acquisition simpler, more efficient and safer for purchasers, this will resolve one of the biggest challenges facing investors in sectors such as agriculture, agro-processing and manufacturing where relatively large tracts of land are needed.

Several other initiatives are already in the process of being introduced or have actually started. For instance the digitization of driving licenses and road worthiness certificates by the Drivers and Vehicles Licensing Authority is now being followed up with the linking of those records to vehicle insurances that have been issued. This will enable the police to recognize fake vehicle insurance or its outright absence online anywhere.

Government’s focus on providing the right framework for digitization and directly deploying it to offer and obtain payment for public goods and services is providing huge opportunities for private enterprise, from service providers to value chain participants and the exploitation of most of those opportunities entails further digitization initiatives by the private sector too.

With more than half of Ghana’s adult population now owning smart phones – and a number of new initiatives not requiring android equipped operating systems as a must – the only barrier to digital domination in the country’s economic transactions and social interactions is education.

This now being provided by a number of non-governmental agencies in particular, even as government itself turns its own attention to cyber security, which is getting increasing fiscal expenditure budgetary votes.

Finally Ghana is going digital, an area in which it actually leads most of the rest of the continent. This means faster, more efficient, cheaper interfaces between suppliers and users of goods and services, both public and private. It also means a much wider vista of such products and services than ever before and much less room for corruption in their delivery.