COLOGNY, SWITZERLAND - Papua New Guinea is one of the most challenging parts of the world to run a digital business. But this is changing.
Prime Minister James Marape is leading a digital transformation agenda that aims to harness the potential of technology to spur development and trade.
The approach is much needed: while 80% of Papua New Guineans live within mobile coverage range, fixed and mobile internet subscriptions only cover around 11% of the population.
PNG, as everywhere, has been disrupted by Covid-19; its tourism industry has seen 90% of 2020 bookings cancelled.
As the country recovers, digital upgrades – including a significant new undersea data cable – could help PNG identify new opportunities for growth.
At the moment, PNG is constrained by digital divides. According to the World Bank, around 70% of the country’s internet users live in PNG’s two largest cities – the capital, Port Moresby and Lae.
Remote rural areas, where 87% of PNG’s estimated 8.42 million people live, suffer from poor connectivity.
There is also an age imbalance: 48% of internet users are young – aged between 18-24, and just 18% are over 34.
The infrastructure that has the potential to bring digital services is also skewed. PNG’s National ICT authority says that in 2019, just 1.2% of internet subscriptions were fixed line services.
This matters less than it did (many developing nations are now using mobiles to ‘leapfrog’ patchy fixed networks).
Nevertheless, speeds are holding back potential: while the bulk of PNG’s web access is via mobile, just 20% of that is on 4G.
There is also only a small amount of Tok Pisin – PNG’s most widely read and spoken language – available online.
All these factors conspire to limit access to and take-up of digital services, including payments and utilities. In turn, that can limit investment into the market.
There are now changes happening on several fronts. One big challenge is infrastructure – but a massive new undersea data link, the Coral Sea Cable, is expected to increase capacity by 1,000 times. Leading telecoms provider, Digicel, is also upgrading the network of 2G mobile phone masts.
Political will is gathering momentum. For example, steps are being taken to advance an Electronic Transactions Act, likely due before PNG’s parliament in November.
Because it will allow contracts to be completed online, with paperwork filed electronically and electronic signatures accepted, it could stimulate new digital activities.
So far, 81% of countries worldwide have adopted e-transaction laws, and Papua New Guinea will need ones of these to reap the benefits of trade facilitations among other things.
The government is also working with local stakeholders to boost digital payments access and adoption. Just 20% of Papua New Guineans have an account with a commercial bank.
Initiatives taken by the Central Bank could encourage service providers to offer innovative services, while protecting customers.
Finally, PNG has set up the world’s first public-private, Digital Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) working group. The aim is to identify actions to make PNG more attractive to external funders of digital economy activities.
The push for a more digital future comes at a crucial moment for PNG. The economy has been hit hard by Covid-19.
According to the World Bank, the multiple demands of Covid-19 have contributed to a rising budget deficit in PNG, not helped by falling prices for agricultural products. There are also pressures on the country’s foreign currency reserves.
But if PNG can fix its technology headaches, it may unlock gains that could move the country forward.
According to a 2019 survey of leading CEOs in Papua New Guinea, unreliable telecommunications is the number one factor facing businesses.
Lower data costs and an upgraded regulatory environment, combined with PNG’s considerable human and ecological capital, could be a springboard to a new era.