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Burundi broadband project nears completion, EcoCash targets coffee farmers

January 22, 2014  »  Broadband & MobileNo Comment

Well over a year ago we anticipated that 2013 would be a banner year for Internet progress in Burundi. Such bullish sentiment was based on optimistic reports from internet governance forums (IGFs) plus a rapidly growing number of mobile subscriptions in the country. Touted were prospects for an operational broadband fibre network for at least Bujumbura, a national ICT policy to run through 2025, and efforts to make public and private sector leaders aware of the importance of better ICT.

Eighteen months later, construction of the national fibre network is moving along, but participants’ concerns from the IGFs held in 2012 seem to have prevented even further development of the ICT sector. That is, high tariffs, lack of electricity, limited international bandwidth, lack of public knowledge about ICT, scarcity of Internet outside of Bujumbura, and low per capita income continue to inhibit ICT progress.

The East African nation still lags its neighbors in terms of mobile subscriptions and internet access. Broadband is scarce and LTE is a dream. Based on continued double-digit annual growth, the number of mobile subscriptions per capita is well above the 23% seen in 2012 but is still under 50% (nations like Nigeria are approaching 100%, partially due to dual-SIM ownership). The national telecom regulator (ARCT) cites 500,000 internet users, or 5% internet penetration as of mid-2013. The banking rate has no doubt increased from the 4% cited by the Commercial Bank of Burundi (BANCOBU) when the group launched their Mobicash banking service in August 2012 but remains low.

Fortunately, improvements are in store for Burundi’s ICT sector. Just this week we have been treated to not one, but two updates on broadband and mobile banking:

  1. Though approved in 2007 and begun in 2011, the Burundi portion of the Regional Communications Infrastructure Project (RCIP) was officially launched by President Nkurunziza on Tuesday. During an address, the president affirmed a commitment to give all citizens internet access by 2025. Which is lofty considering how RCIP has moved along. The $25 million broadband projected funded by The World Bank continues to make progress amid delays (the first phase of the project was initially supposed to be completed three years ago). Approximately 1,000km of fibre-optic cable (80% of the total) is already laid. 9 of 17 provinces are connected. Once all international connections are made, wholesale international capacity should increase 40% to 700 Mbit/s and costs could fall by a similar amount.
  2. Coffee producers now have the opportunity to be paid directly through EcoCash. An agreement between Econet Wireless and African Fine Coffees Association will allow farmers to see their money sooner than before. Messages related to coffee sector innovation can also be exchanged via Econet. For example, messages can instruct farmers when to fertilize their coffee or how to negotiate better with buyers. Even if only a minority of farmers use mobile devices, this is still a step forward for using m-agriculture to boost the economy.

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