The Information and Communication Technologies (“ICT”) sector is burgeoning and millions of Burundians are navigating and finding their feet in a more connected world. At the beginning of the decade, only 1,914,586 Burundians were mobile subscribers, whereas at the end of the decade, in 2018, a total of 6,317,965 Burundians were already registered as mobile subscribers among a population of less than 12,000,000 – according to the numbers published by the Agence de Régulation et de Contrôle des telecommunications, a regulatory body in charge of overseeing and developing the ICT sector. This growing interest has induced demonstrable effects on the practices and policies of Burundian officials: a multiplication of public officials’ ICT trainings; the introduction of ICT to various public services; and the implementation of laws and regulations encouraging investors in the ICT sector.
Amid the unprecedented Covid-19 times, a noticeable switch has been witnessed with companies operating mainly in the province of Bujumbura Mairie. A significant number of companies have opted to advertise their products or services via social media, introducing what constitutes a new practice for Burundi. Clients can access, order – either through platforms or their mobile phones, thus making the most of a growing mobile subscription – and have the goods or services delivered to a convenient address.
For the 2020 world Telecommunication and Information Society Day, we have wondered how the ICT dynamics are integrated here in Burundi in three worldwide trending areas.
Tentative platforms have been put in place allowing customers in Burundi, mainly in urban areas, to have access to e-commerce services. Although these platforms exist, they remain largely unused. There is an existential lack of trust of any sort of electronic transactions, as not many Burundians are accustomed to them. When it comes to any type of financial transaction, society is still deeply rooted in human contacts. Moreover, access to internet banking services is almost non-existent, making it difficult for e-commerce to thrive. Informal and rapid face-to-face transactions remain what Burundians are most comfortable with as prices can always be negotiated.
Where any type of “e-commerce” does currently exist, it is simply as a way of connecting a vendor to a potential buyer through an online platform but ultimately the transaction is still done cash in hand. However, such platforms may represent a potential first step towards genuine e-commerce in Burundi.
- Financial technologies
The use of new technology with regards to financial services in Burundi can still be seen as relatively fledgling but yet enchanting. It is strictly dominated by mobile network platforms. The streets of both urban and rural areas have been invaded by local agents, recognizable by their flashy vests, direct contacts through whom most transactions are made. Transfers of cash, for example, have ended up being more maneuverable between family members across the country, businesses’ stakeholders or when shopping. All of this can take place without having to own a bank account, a tremendous and welcomed alternative.
The services are accessible through mobile network platforms where anyone with a SIM card of one of these mobile networks can open an account and recharge with cash and enjoy the services offered. A rise of partnerships between mobile networks and banking institutions has more recently permitted direct transfers between one’s bank account to the platform, streamlining the process for bank account owners.
Almost half of the Burundian population – a total of 4,133,882 in December 2019 – is known to be a registered customer. It is therefore somewhat surprising to read on the same report published by the Agence de Régulation et de Contrôle des telecommunications, that among this relatively big population of registered customers, only 23.14% are active. The widespread digital illiteracy when it comes to financial technologies, in addition to the preference for face-to-face transactions (see e-commerce section), likely explain this disparity.
The country is fighting a digital illiteracy battle not only among the general population, but also among those actors who should be at the forefront of these technologies; regulatory bodies, companies and banks all struggle to understand. Furthermore, lawyers in Burundi are not yet equipped with the legal arsenal to help regulate the sector. As a result, the customer feels less protected from the start, ends up fearful and is exposed when sharing personal data. In sum, regulations, data protection laws, instruments against cyber criminality and so forth are inexistent, putting individuals, companies and banking institutions all at risk.
Ride-hailing was a concept completely unknown to the public in Burundi until last year. Wasili, the result of a partnership between a Kenyan and a Burundian startup, is available through a smartphone or a computer and has joined the market around 2019 as the first ride-hailing application.
The whole concept can be perceived as quite exotic to Burundians. Available only in specific areas, Wasili is trying to make it through a challenging but (potentially) promising market. In Burundi, the price of a smartphone or a computer far exceeds what an average citizen can pay; the prospective market is then significantly reduced to urban areas and the small percentage of population earning above the average income or expatriates. The cheapest option will therefore always prevail and ride-hailing isn’t yet perceived as such.
To some extent, Wasili also reflects the same situations as what we saw above with e-commerce: an online platform is available but yet the transaction is still cash-based. This is an important difference with the well known ride-hailing companies of other countries in the world and reflects that Burundians are not yet acclimatized to the Uber-fication phenomenon and its benefits. Still this represents a promising and emerging trend that could require legal regulation and integration of financial technology services. Additionally, with most travel taking place during the day, the business may find a niche and could thrive late at night when alternatives are not available.
From the beginning of the millennium, very few laws and regulations have been voted and implemented to meet current realities. For example, décret-lois that have been put in place concern the establishment of operating conditions for the electronic communications’ sector in 2014 and, in 2017, the creation of a universal service fund for ICT. The general trend shows that laws and regulations voted are directed to regulating the sector, access to services, taxation and management of ICT companies by the regulatory body ARCT. However a serious legal vacuum is still yet to be filled when it comes to consumers and their interactions. The need for such laws will most certainly grow in the aftermath of Covid-19, when markets will be adjusting to a more connected world.
This publication is for general advice only and should not be considered as a substitute for proper legal advice.