Vodafone Uganda, a subsidiary of the global telecom giant invited me for its Vodafone Power Talks forum at Serena Hotel as one of the panellists. My presentation was on how agricultural entrepreneurs can leverage the power of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to grow their businesses. Central to my discussion was how some enterprising Ugandans have attempted to harness ICT to start, grow and expand their businesses. The role of television and the recent digital migration from analogue formed part of the main thrust of my presentation. According to Uganda Bureau of Statistics, access to mobile phone and television has, in the last decade alone, more than quadrupled to more than Shs18.7 million people and three million people respectively. This is the period World Bank has dubbed the “mobile decade.” There are more than 44 licensed TV stations. The question is then how many of these proud owners of TV sets are staring at blank boxes due to the digital migration. A TV owner must either purchase a Set Top Box (STB) or use pay-TV decoders either option is quite expensive for an ordinary Ugandan. For example, a recent survey in Tanzania done by Tanzania media specialists discovered that 500,000 decoders were in use against the estimated three million TV sets owned by households as of March this year.
For argument’s sake, let us hold that most households that own television sets can afford either the Set Top boxes or monthly subscription fees for pay TVs. The question then is, how will this digital migration, beyond mere rush to comply with international deadlines or the cosmetic improvement in quality pictures and choice, engender productive and informative programming for the citizenry already encumbered with poverty and a high cost of living? How will digital migration herald a positive shift from current programming inundated with popular but non-value adding programmes like Spanish soaps Telemundo, Indian dramas, cheap and adulterated Nigerian movies, etc, to informative shows like Koola ng’omuddu, Pakasa, education quizzes et cetera that impart real life skills and add value to the subscribing viewership?
The other question is whether Uganda Communications Commission has ensured that the imported STBs are high quality devices with limited depreciation rates to ensure value for money for the end users? Poor quality gadgets mean constant repairs and replacements which not only financially constrain TV owners, but will also constantly keep them off air thus creating an information gap. Yet in today’s globalised world, the renaissance in Information and Communication Technology has led to increased reliance on Internet, mobile phones and television for instant and vital information on global trade opportunities, markets, health, commodity prices, etc. Therefore, the bottom line is that the migration from analogue to digital television should facilitate rather than inhibit unfettered access to information.
Whereas the licenced TV stations are profit-driven private entities, with digital migration, that involves monthly subscription, UCC as a regulator should not adopt the laissez faire approach and let demand and supply entirely dictate programming. UCC through strategic partnerships should both attract sponsorships and work with these private firms to ensure fair programming that balances entertainment with educative programmes which benefit viewers and subscribers and ensure value for money in return. Big corporate companies through corporate social responsibility can sponsor such programmes. At Agency for Transformation, we leveraged the network power of radio and television in 2013 to help farmers visualise and track money meant for agriculture under Naads programme in the districts of Mityana and Mubende. These are some of the innovative methods that even profit-driven TV stations can use to tap into lucrative sponsorships while telecasting quality programming.