A plan for the future

The Tanzanian irrigation ministry develops a long-term ICT strategy

Joash Nyitambe

Tanzania’s Ministry of Water and Irrigation has developed an ICT strategy, which includes using GIS, radio and cell phones, to deliver irrigation and water services.

If someone living in a remote part of Tanzania wants information on what the government is doing to bring irrigation to their region, they have to take a long trip to the Ministry of Water and Irrigation (MoWI) and ask a member of staff. Aware that this is a problem for many people, the ministry is now developing its use of ICTs to give the public a better understanding of exactly what it does.

In line with the national e-government policy, MoWI has developed a detailed ICT strategy that covers each of its offices and departments. As well as providing information to the public, the new plan sets out policies for using technology to streamline daily working practices and deliver more efficient services.

‘Previously, each department was responsible for its own equipment and processes,’ says Joash Nyitambe, head of the ICT unit at MoWI. ‘We were wasting a lot of resources on things that could be shared or integrated between offices. Also, we didn’t have a clear picture of what resources we had or what we would need in the future. That’s why we had to develop a clear plan.’
The ministry’s ICT strategy details how it will use technology from 2010 to 2014. For irrigation, this means using remote sensing and GIS technology to gather information on soil quality and available water resources. This will help managers and engineers identify areas suitable for irrigation.

‘We are developing a system to capture data on all the water points and irrigation services in the country,’ says Nyitambe. ‘We need to update the information we currently have so that we can plan and decide where to invest in the future. We have a project to visit each water point with GPS receivers to record the coordinates of every location, and we are investigating the best methods for field officers to collect other data, such as the condition of water pumps and the types of crop being grown. Cell phones could be very useful for gathering this kind of information; they can be carried easily and can send back data via the cell phone network without the need for field officers to return to the office every day.’

Targeted data

The ministry will also look at levels of internet and cell phone connectivity throughout the country. By mapping the availability of this technology, communications specialists can then decide on the best ways to reach people living in specific areas. For example, the ministry can use SMS to inform people in places where cell phones are commonly used, and make radio programmes to deliver information to people in areas with no cell phone coverage or internet access. Those with good internet connectivity can be kept up to date with e-mails and posts on MoWI’s website.

‘We’ve had very encouraging results from previous projects that delivered agricultural information on the web,’ says Nyitambe. ‘There are still areas of the country with unreliable cell phone coverage, but some rural villages are very advanced and have good internet access. We hadn’t expected such a good response to our internet services from these areas. It showed us that
we have to adapt our information delivery depending on the location, and use the most appropriate method and technology to keep people informed.’

This combination of a wide range of data will help MoWI draw up detailed plans specific to the location where future irrigation schemes will be installed. Managers will be able to use GIS and field information to determine which sites will be a priority and what kind of irrigation system should be installed. They can use the data on technology coverage to decide on the best way to inform the local population of new installations and develop methods for obtaining feedback.

The ministry will also use integrated computer networks to tackle water supply issues, for example, reforming the manual billing system. Water users will be able to get a better overview of exactly how much water they use and what they are paying for. The process will be more efficient, allowing the ministry to reinvest any savings into providing better basic services. It may also be possible, in the near future, to send water bills directly to customers’ cell phones and enable them to pay through mobile banking systems. This would save people from having to visit their local authority to collect and pay their bills.

Regular reviews

It can take a long time to develop such a detailed strategy – eighteen months in MoWI’s case. First, staff from each department had to be consulted, and the strategy team had to decide which ideas they could use and which did not fit in with the overall plan. The next step was to present the details to technical staff, management and elected officials for further discussion. And not just officials from the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, but related ministries too.

‘The administrative issues took up a lot of time,’ says Nyitambe. ‘But we involved as many people as possible from the very beginning, inviting them to meetings or even through informal talks. When we finally called everyone together to discuss our paper, they were already aware of what we were doing and why. That helped to make the process go more smoothly, and although there were inevitable changes and suggestions that we had to incorporate, we managed to reach a consensus fairly quickly.’

But ICTs develop rapidly. Software companies regularly upgrade operating systems, manufacturers produce faster and more efficient computers and yet another cell phone application becomes available for download. The pace of change in the technology sector presents its own challenges to anyone producing a long-term national ICT plan.

‘That makes it very difficult to talk about specific types of technology in the strategy,’ says Nyitambe. ‘Instead, we have to look at functionality. We need to determine exactly what we need in order to develop our services. We will then revisit the plan annually to decide which kinds of technology we will use to make sure we stay on track to meet our goals.’

The ministry’s managers have to be realistic, however. They know that the new strategy will not please all of their employees. ‘Some people get worried when you start talking about introducing new technology,’ says Nyitambe. ‘Many think it means they will lose their jobs, when in fact this is hardly ever the case.

‘Making greater use of ICTs will certainly bring change to the ministry, though. It will mean some retraining. It will also mean reorganising personnel into new positions and even new offices. This can be a big shift in the mindset of some people, and we must be aware of that. So as well as adopting new technology, we also have to adopt new change management practices to make sure people understand the process.’

The initial cost of investing in technology and implementing it across the entire country can be high. However, MoWI’s executives are sure that the programme will become cost-effective through more efficient cost-recovery operations, the integration of resources and the streamlining of services. Having a comprehensive plan for the future also helps to attract donor funding. But donor agencies have their own plans, and having a clear strategy set out on paper can appear inflexible.

‘Donors generally like it if you can spell out exactly what you want and explain how you will use the money,’ says Nyitambe. ‘But many donors have already identified the areas where they want to invest and if our plan doesn’t match theirs, then it can be a big challenge to find the right funding.’

After all their hard work to put together such a detailed plan, staff at the ministry face another potential challenge: Tanzania is expected to hold elections in October 2010 and a new minister could arrive with very different priorities. But this does not discourage Nyitambe; he’s convinced that the new ICT strategy will help the ministry provide irrigation and better water services to the people. ‘We cannot put off making plans just because the future is uncertain. In fact, that is exactly why we need such a strategy – to plan and be ready for the changes that may come.’

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Joash Nyitambe is head of the ICT unit at the Tanzanian Ministry of Water and Irrigation ( www.mowi.go.tz)

30 August 2010

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