ICT in Liberia: A Review of 2021 and a Forecast of the Year 2022

Since 2009 we have had the honor and privilege of writing the Science and Technology Column for the Liberia Daily Observer. Along the way, two things have become traditional: A Review of the “ended” year, and a Forecast of the new year. The former is usually done on the last Tuesday of the year, since this column is scheduled to be published on Tuesdays, and the latter is done on the first Tuesday of the new year. Unfortunately, we were not able to follow our tradition, so we are taking a new turn by blending both a review of our ICT sector and an ICT forecast for the year 2022.

An annual review of our ICT sector allows us to revisit the progress made and challenges experienced over 12 months. A forecast pretty much helps us set goals and plan strategies for the coming year. The bottom line is that both the review and forecast provide indicators to benchmark values, inform sector policy analysis, and ensure compatibility with other global trends. This article does not claim to be an exhaustive review or forecast of our ICT sector, hence, the possibility of some activities being left out cannot be ruled out. Now, let’s begin with the 2021 ICT Sector Review. 

The year 2021 unfortunately was no different from 2020 which was plagued by the advent of the COVID-19 Pandemic and the new challenges it introduced. Yet, despite the challenges faced, Liberia, as did other countries around the world, embraced those challenges and the “new normal” they brought, and made strides in its ICT sector. First, we saw the launch of the National ICT Policy on Monday, May 17, 2021. The National ICT Policy aims at creating a technological environment for all Liberians.

Subsequently, we saw a major effort to upgrade our national ICT infrastructure when on Tuesday, November 2, 2021, CSquared signed an extension of its previous license with the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA), permitting them to build a backbone or network throughout the nation. This initiative now provides a tremendous boost to Liberia’s internet connectivity. CSquared informed Liberians that it will invest at least $10 Million in this initiative. 

We then saw efforts by the Government of Liberia in the area of Cybersecurity and e-Government. Various Ministries and Agencies in Liberia have begun automating their processes while others have begun making efforts to do the same. The Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA) has made major strides in automating its revenue collection capabilities as has other government institutions in Liberia. 

We saw a collaborative effort that led to a 2-day technology symposium under the auspices of African Virtual Campus (AVC – Global) at the Monrovia City Hall. That symposium brought both international and local ICT experts together, to expose participants to online Contents Management Systems, Cybersecurity, the role ICT plays in successfully transforming businesses, and why Liberia should prepare to participate in this global phenomenon.

Earlier in the year, we observed Safer Internet Day (SID) 2021 which was celebrated with over 10 schools and the University in Liberia. Several young Liberians across the country benefited from the event. Later, we heard about the “SPIDER” initiative which involved strengthening domestic accountability and empowering the citizenry through ICT. SPIDER makes public data about COVID -19 responses, including funding and resource utilization, accessible through various ICT platforms, including open data, social media, and radio platforms. It also fought to reduce the proliferation of COVID 19 misinformation through awareness about the pandemic and public services that benefit the vulnerable population

In academia, a lot was achieved during the year in review. For example, the University of Liberia continued its eLearning program despite the challenges it faced, as a result of yet another new variant of COVID-19, the Delta Variant. Challenges facing the UL’s eLearning program include the lack of bare minimum requirements for learning such as internet access, computing devices, etc. 

The University of Liberia also made a major stride that is geared toward changing the dynamics of Liberia’s ICT sector and that is the establishment of the Department of Computer and Information Sciences (DCIS) program. This program is intended to offer baccalaureate degrees in Information Technology with four concentrations: Cyber Security, Software Engineering, Networking Technologies, and Data Science. In addition, the Liberia Research and Education Network (LRREN) received a positive response from the USAID in terms of providing support. This support will translate into the full operationalization of the LRREN to enable it to deliver services to academia, research institutions, and other institutions seeking to benefit from affordable Internet and collaborative research and innovation initiatives. 

We saw an increase in internet penetration as a result of COVID-19. We saw more demands for Internet data packages as a result of the “New Normal” which forced businesses, government, academia and other sectors to rely more on the Internet (ZOOM, WhatsAPP, Messenger, etc. ), for operations. New household installations increased as a result of COVID-19. Moreover, given the increase in demand for data due to increasingly bandwidth-intensive services, international bandwidth has grown since the advent of COVID-19. Yet, the digital divide persists. While almost all urban areas in the world are covered by a mobile broadband network, many gaps persist in rural areas. The gender divide remains a reality, with still fewer women than men benefiting from Internet use. 

As Liberia grapples with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of ICTs and services, and the digital infrastructure that they ride and scale on has become central to continued economic and societal activity and to lessening the pandemic’s impact. Indeed, several other achievements were made during 2021. We are hoping to build on those achievements in 2022 which looks more promising than 2021. Why do I say this? Read on!!!

Forecasting 2022

The year 2022 is expected to bring newer tidings for the Liberian ICT sector. We expect to see our GSM/MNO companies improve their services since it is now clear that OTT (Over Top Technology) has interfered with their traditional voice and SMS services, which negatively impacts their bottom line. Over-the-top communications or OTT refers to a class of real-time communications solutions that operate over the Internet. Consumers and business users make use of OTT communications applications and services to collaborate and to reduce communications expenses––especially international calling and roaming fees.

We expect to see more initiatives geared toward Liberia’s Digital Economy as well as initiatives, especially in awareness, that involve Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things, Cloud Computing and Cyber security. We expect more Liberian ICT companies to deliver services and systems so that there will be a reduction in the importation of skills from other countries. 

We will see more automation of services and an improvement in Liberia’s e-government initiatives. MACs will work with local ICT firms to improve their processes. 

Institutions of learning will up their game by revisiting and upgrading their course offerings to reflect changing demands and changing times. We will see more strides made by the LRREN and academic institutions in the areas of research, innovation, and the offering of affordable internet services. 

We will see a lot of academic institutions digitize their platforms and we will see a more improved e-Learning system at the University of Liberia. The UL’s Digital Transformation Program will transform the teaching and learning environment and we will see students of the University of Liberia enjoy better internet and computing facilities. 

In the Fintech industry, we will see banks improve their systems and provide more services that would lead to a cashless economy. We expect to see new entrants appearing in the local market, although some indirectly, to play a role in digitizing our economy. 

As we move into 2020, consistent development and deployment of ICT infrastructure and its concomitant services mean a continued trend towards digital transformation for educational institutions, businesses and government, et al. Generally, the pandemic has forced a greater demand for digital reliance across the board, and this outcome is likely here to stay in the “new normal” as the utility of more abundant data and the lowering transaction costs of using that data impact how entrepreneurs, policy-makers, and professionals make decisions. In the light of this, policy development focused on inclusion, access, security, skills, and sustainability in terms of emerging technologies and their benefits should become one of the defining characteristics of the year 2022. Artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, cloud computing, distributed ledger technology, precision medicine, digital trade, autonomous mobility, and many more evolving technological arenas will shape the future of the world.

The possibilities are infinite, and Liberia is set to make progress in digitization to enable her to compete in the fourth industrial revolution. As we sail through the year, we are excited about the possibilities ahead. We are also prepared, based on lessons learned, to tackle challenges and turn them into opportunities. The road ahead is very promising. I am very excited about these new opportunities and I am excited to be a part of them.