PORT MORESBY – Papua New Guinea has more than eight million people, over 800 spoken languages and one of the lowest population densities in the world.
There is real potential for mobile technology to be transformational in helping the country to achieve upper middle-income status by 2050, a key part of PNG’s strategic Vision 2050.
Underpinned by collaboration between government, the mobile industry, the private sector, civil society organisations and development agencies, mobile technology can play a role to address major challenges the country faces.
These include a high poverty rate (two million people below the poverty line), gender inequality, violence and corruption, natural disasters and climate change and the lack of a robust identity system (up to 80% of the population has no access to any written form of identification).
Stakeholders need to act now to ensure that PNG’s digital future is inclusive and leaves no one behind.
Access to and use of mobile technology in PNG have been shaped by several events and daily realities, such as the arrival and investment of a large mobile group in 2007 (Digicel, currently the dominant player), a predominantly rural and off-grid population, and low average revenue per user.
In 2016, PNG began a process of compulsory SIM card registration, largely driven by a security agenda, requiring every SIM card holder to register in person with their mobile network operator.
PNG’s infrastructure and literacy challenges have made it difficult to register SIM cards in rural communities where most central government services do not reach. In August 2018, deactivation commenced in urban areas, with further extensions to people in towns and rural areas.
Although 67% of the population is within reach of mobile coverage, a large proportion of PNG’s population remains unconnected, mainly due to the complexity of extending mobile networks in remote and mountainous areas with low population density.
Although mobile internet penetration continues to grow (reaching up to one million unique subscribers and with 4G representing 21% of all connections), mobile broadband availability and network quality, affordability of devices and services, and limited digital literacy skills are key barriers to adoption and use.
With less than 15% of the population having access to electricity and 87% living in rural areas, more needs to be done to ensure the majority of the country’s population has access to reliable and affordable electricity, one of the chief enablers of a digital ecosystem.
Prioritising efforts to target these barriers will be key to ensure the digital divide doesn’t grow and further exclude communities, including women.
Previous research has shown that key barriers to mobile phone ownership and usage faced by women in PNG include affordability, accessibility (including limited access to identification documents, electricity and limited mobility to access network coverage), safety concerns, and usability and skills.
Although the percentage of PNG’s population with access to formal financial services has largely improved over the past years (37% in 2018), financial exclusion remains the norm, especially for rural communities, women and among micro, small and medium enterprises.
Under the second national financial inclusion strategic plan (2016-2020), the government aims to reach two million more unbanked, low-income citizens, 50% of whom will be women. To achieve this goal, digital finance has been prioritised for scaling up financial access and reaching remote parts of the country.
With efforts from local banks and mobile operators, mobile money services could improve financial inclusion through widespread digital financial education and training, an extensive mobile money agent network to facilitate transactions and the digitisation of payment streams, including for wages, farming activities, and health payments.
Launched in 2012, MiBank offers MiCash mobile financial services (leveraging Digicel’s network), and by December 2018 it had more than 67,000 MiCash accounts, of which 55% are active across urban (56%) and rural (44%) customers.
As PNG’s minister for commerce and industry has stated, “technology and connectivity are extremely important in the micro, small and medium enterprises sectors”.
Port Moresby eagerly awaits the new internet Coral Sea Cable System (to be connected by the end of 2019) while PNG becomes a cradle for digital experiments with frontier technologies such as blockchain.
There is an opportunity to harness the entrepreneurial energy PNG has to offer to address local challenges.
A new generation of talented entrepreneurs is emerging and further support needs to be provided to educate and train leaders, and create start-up success stories.
The agricultural sector represents a large part of the PNG economy (25-40% of GDP in the last 40 years) and digital tools would help modernise the sector and make it better equipped to face current and upcoming challenges.
With a large proportion of stunting children in some regions and extreme weather events on the rise, addressing food security issues will increasingly be one of the biggest challenges for development.
By enabling farmers to have access to better information on agricultural inputs, nutrition, crop prices, and weather data, and by facilitating access to finance through mobile money channels, some of these challenges could be addressed and productivity boosted.