Vanuatu, like many other countries in the region is striving to attract foreign investment. What are the competitive advantages that Vanuatu has to offer international investors over the rest of the Pacific islands?
Oh, that is a very difficult and tuff question but it’s good to give my views on in terms of Telecommunications Development in Vanuatu. First of all we have some improvement on our national governance system that is being perceived to be corrupted. As experienced, I believe with the current Government there is starting to be some control and mechanism in place that are trustworthy and that provides confidence to everyone, not only at a national level, but also internationally and within the region. That is one major thing that we (Executive Officers) and at our own levels are working on and striving to get that right. By having that in place the next thing that is expected which are also happening is that each institution and the sectors across and especially for the head of institutions to work on is improvement on what’s already there in terms of Governance procedures. That would promote Good Governance at the executive level, being example of the practice which is also now critical not only in the Private Sector but also at the Government level. Within all levels of developments in Vanuatu, and in terms of telecommunications, by having for example TRR who’s looking after the regulatory of the telecommunications market including radiocommunications and internet; it is very important to be independently operating. By operating independently we are making sure that there is no influence from the Political movements and there is no kind of collusion between any groups or stakeholders that we are serving. We provide that independent support to each of our stakeholders. For example for consumers and telecommunication industry I will make sure that my response to the Government is not bias but consider the industry and also the consumers’ rights and at the same time the response is fair. That is very important and critical. For telecommunication it is critical and is also a unique setup for the independent operations. That doesn’t really mean that we are totally independent and we can run the institution operations on our own and outside the laws of Vanuatu, but it is very important to report to a specific head that is looking after whoever, for example for the telecommunication regulator, we are reporting directly to the Prime Minister, who is the Minister responsible for Telecommunications/ICT which is also a credible set up in terms of Telecommunications and ICT development across Vanuatu.
It’s known that Vanuatu has one of the best regulations in regards to the telecommunications sector in the Pacific Islands. What do you think are the key reasons behind that success and how are you doing to maintain that position year after year?
That is a very good question and I like it because it’s something that I always promote in my discussions or meetings. First of all, like I mentioned earlier, that by practicing “Good Governance” in the operations of an institution is key recognized leadership. Leading by and through examples in drafting and approval of regulations and other regulatory instruments that are fair, and that we have consulted on with all associated stakeholders and sectors has proven to be a good regulation. A regulation that is fair for all parties involved. This is because it is important that we have met, discussed and got their views on the document before it is approved by the Parliament. So that’s one of the reasons to having the approval of the regulations thus leading to operating a good and fair regulation within the sector. Secondly, when I refer to regulations, I do not necessarily mean that TRR is operating under a lot of regulations. TRR is also a light touch regulator; by a light touch I mean only when we need or require a regulation, for example in terms of consumer protection since we don’t have anybody or institution that looks after consumer protection affairs in Vanuatu, thus it is important for us to come up with a specific regulation to cater for the consumer and customers specific interest within the sector. Since 10 years ago, TRR has so far established two regulations to cater for areas which have not been clearly captured in the Telecommunications legislations of 2009, which are .VU country code Top Level Domain (.vu ccTLD) and Consumer Protection Regulations which we are currently implementing; and at the same time applying the approach and that’s an example of why we are kind of unique. Not only that, we are also making sure that the key word independence is one “Governance Practice and Leadership Approach” that we are promoting. This is very important for this institution and why because we want to provide to the investors that we are totally independent, we are trusted and that they can give us that confidence. When you come here in Vanuatu to invest or operate any Telecommunications businesses you should know that all information in terms of Telecommunications, which are provided and that are marked confidential are always maintained confidential and by doing so, we make sure that we are fair and transparent in some areas. That’s also what I believe has contributed to making us unique in the region.
Since when is TRR independent?
TRR was established in 2008 and operated independently after the Telecommunications Act of 2009 was approved in November 2009. And I think it is also important to know that in the region the institutions are attached to the Government organizations, the Ministries. TRR although is an authority, it’s totally independent. By showing to everyone that we are operating independently but in fair and transparent manner, it’s also giving that confidence to the operators to trust us and other stakeholders including the Government of Vanuatu in terms of decision making.
You have mentioned that you are an advisor to the Hon. Prime Minister Charlot Salwai. Could you tell us more details about how are you advising to the Hon. Prime Minister Charlot Salwai in regards to the telecommunications and radio communications sector?
At the moment I provide six (6) months and at the same time an annual reporting. I also do quarterly face to face update reporting when required. The approach we take on channeling our reporting is very important. For example, if we are providing written report we make sure what is specific for him to know and not the whole detail of the report; similarly with a face to face reporting. Section 7 of the Telecommunications Act, 2009 also provides for the Regulator to advice the Minister responsible of the relevant policy or making of regulations and other matters the Minister may request.
As Regulator, what is your main goal at the moment and how are you working on it in collaboration with the Hon. Prime Minister Charlot Salwai?
There are three things that require our urgent attention on; are to get the roll out of telecommunications access to citizens whom are unserved or underserved in particular providing broadband network and mobile voice across Vanuatu to reach 98% of population coverage by January 1 2018, and that’s pretty soon. That’s also a big commitment by the Government. Right now our best estimate is around 94%. So what we are currently working on in order to get to the 98%, through the unique Government’s “Play or Pay” approach policy, the TRR has agreed with the operators whom have committed to play (rolling out of network coverage at their own cost), extra sites to reach that target. Thanks to Telecom Vanuatu Limited and the Digicel Vanuatu Limited who have committed to deliver by December 2017. This is not an easy commitment as they deliver at their own cost and also TRR is making sure it is a quality service and experience for the citizens that the providers are providing across the country. So that is one thing, to get to that 98% population coverage by 1 January 2018 or towards end of this year 2017.
The second thing to do is to promote the uptake of the available service of internet and other telecommunication services. We have the services in town, for example in Sydney, Australia wherever you are, you can order your goods through online and in few seconds or minutes you receive whatever you ordered, if you have access tointernet services. That is the aim that we are working towards. We want to get there and in particular in the areas where we already have available network. At this time, for example in Port Vila (capital of Vanuatu) we are saying that we are using internet services, or telecommunications services however, the usage or the uptake of these services (internet) is still minimal. For example if you look out on online activities within Vanuatu you can find limited people or business people that are using online services or have created website to promote their businesses. We are also working with the Minister responsible to support and get us there. That is by responding to how with our regulatory role, we can get everyone to utilize the available network and or what can be done in this case. We also assisted and or will assist with appropriate mechanism to achieve this vision.
Given that Agriculture is one of the major produces or main income earner people in Vanuatu, how can telecommunication or ICT be utilized as an enabler in that important sector.
Currently we are working with the Ministry of the Agriculture to identify what can be done, especially with the available Telecommunications network outside Port Vila and Luganville which is another town. What can be done in order to reach that goal or objectives that the Ministry concerned has in place. There were a lot of discussions on eco-tourism and e-agriculture activities. And ego-tourism is closely associated with e-agriculture and is very important in Vanuatu, which I agree on, however, most tourists that are coming to Vanuatu are from New Zealand, Australia, which are developed countries and have very good access to telecommunications services. Therefore it is very important for us to connect them into our ICT network and that is also one of the major activities that we are currently working to improve on.
What is also important is the Digital Financial Inclusion and as well as the Education sector. So I will start with Education. As you may have heard that the illiteracy rate is high in Vanuatu so how could ICT come in to assist with reducing that rate? So what had happened is that the Government through TRR has setup the internet computer laboratory sites in 22 schools where they were surrounded by communities. We setup these internet sites for the nearby population to also have access to that service and for them to be trained, communicate and upload or check any information they wish to obtain from across the world. And so that was the important deliverable that we are undertaking and have delivered on. We have managed to complete all sites and they are up and running as we speak. So that’s with Education. The other major programs that are still outstanding are the emergency and health. We have piloted a project in the island of Maewo, north of Vanuatu, which we called telemedicine and because we don’t have the Telecommunications network in one of the remote village (I think remotes in the world), we managed to come up with one type technology (thanks to Kacific limited a Satellite provider and the Government of Australia through Governance for Growth program for financial support) that has assisted by providing them with internet access and we have achieved that. The network is up and running and now it is the responsibility for Ministry of Health to come up with some strategies as to how to utilize what is currently made available.
With the Emergency, as you may have heard, Vanuatu is ranked number one in the world that is prone to Natural Disasters. Managing and or coordinating Telecommunications Emergency Natural Disaster is difficult because it’s outside of the scope for TRR’s regulatory functions but at the same time the associated authorities and stakeholders would also rely on TRR to provide specific advice and or some form of guidance as to how to be technologically organized and be prepared when the disaster strikes. In order to achieve Vanuatu’s vision in managing preparedness for natural disasters, TRR has linked that function to its current associated projects and provide advice and report of the same to the Prime Minister. TRR has coordinated and is continuing to assist with current coordination of what we called National Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (NETC).
We managed by getting all the stakeholders together that can provide whatever assistance required and we facilitated meetings and so far we have appointed the Chief Information Officer for the Government as the leader and chair for the cluster, and its deputy as one of the Telecommunications Operator (Digicel Vanuatu). We are pleased that the coordination role is now under the Prime Minister’s Office. The current NETC is almost releasing its National Disaster Planning which is expected to be publically released in the mid of this year. The secret of getting this effectively functioning is to have members of the committee that are passionate to assist with what is required. TRR has also dialogue with the Vanuatu Cultural Centre Management, but it is difficult because first of all they must understand how ICT/technologies could assist them in their role to enable effectiveness in the management of Vanuatu Cultural and Traditional sector.
We wanted to ask you how important is TRR for the development of Vanuatu. You have already mentioned the impact in different sector such us agriculture, education, health… What about the finance sector?
For Finance TRR can only be part to a project known as Digital Financial Inclusion and or e-banking services which are very important to us and for the citizens. You may have heard or you will hear from other meetings that the people outside Port Vila and Luganville or Tanna, the small towns are still hiding money. This is a reason why we are promoting Digital Financial Inclusion as one of the option to minimize the rate of unbanked population. For example Digicel Vanuatu, Telecom Vanuatu Ltd (Telecommunications Service Providers) can come in and say “Let’s go with mobile money”. It is now financial transaction through the telecommunication means which TRR must step in and signal to the bankers or providers what it means to consumer “in terms of consumer protection’’. “And also in terms of access itself, what does it mean to both customers and service providers?” That’s where our role is. So TRR is working with the Financial Regulator for Vanuatu because it has to come in and lead the project. Discussions with actions in this area are much needed and now required, so today it’s becoming more important to action the discussions given we also receive pressure from the respective heads of Telecommunications across the globe. For example, the Prime Minister, minister responsible for ICT/Telecommunications and the heads of ITU and other associated organizations.
As a regulator for Telecommunications, we also have a big role to play. But, it is not only the Telecommunications Regulator but has to be with the Financial Regulator. The positive side of it is that, in rural communities where the internet centers that I mentioned earlier are, we promoted them to the banks to consider. There is already one site where National Bank of Vanuatu is effectively utilizing it to serve the surrounding people, so we are starting to get there.
Talking now about foreign investors, what are the major opportunities that they can find here within the telecom sector?
Vanuatu is a difficult and at the same time unique country as you may have heard, because of its topographical structure. For telecommunication, already it is difficult and expensive to continue to deploy to cater for 100% population coverage as a one off deployment. However, I am pleased to inform all investors that by end of this year 2017, the Government of Vanuatu is expecting to reach 98% of population coverage on both broadband and voices services. That is a lot of improvement. This will also stimulate a lot of opportunities for businesses to eventuate at the village level where majority of the population are.
Now that the investors have seen that side of the coin, so what is it that the investors can bring into Vanuatu given this unique topography for the country? One may say, is that the question that is directing TRR to get that roll out of Telecommunications services to the outer islands? When you talk about Vanuatu, Vanuatu is not Port Vila, or Luganville. It is whole of the islands across Vanuatu. The telecommunications services that are currently available in islands outside urban areas will assist to stimulate eco- tourism or other forms of businesses given that network is across the country. So those are some of the areas that we encourage investors to go to and invest. Then, they can see and experience the beauty of the country. For example, in Malekula, in one particular part of the island, they are producing a lot of cocoa and are currently exporting to different parts of Asia in a small scale of the market. An investor from France or anywhere who knows how and can invest on building a chocolate factory and export chocolate outside Vanuatu is a huge business opportunity. By installing internet services in that area which there is today, is providing a lot of opportunity to develop the area, the surrounding population and the business itself.
What about the data centers? That brings a lot of investment in other small English speaking islands, like in the Caribbean, for example.
What had happened is that we had a lot of discussions about data center. Then secondly, there are two or three organizations in Vanuatu that are consulting to establish a center. For data center itself TRR is being approached but we have to make sure that appropriate mechanism is in place in terms of regulatory and in terms of privacy to cater for the service. That is what we are working on with the responsible Government department to come up with some effective strategies. There is also a submarine cable that is now in Vanuatu whether is effectively utilized or not, is an issue which is why the price is still high. It is TRR’s priority at the moment to get the Internet price lower and that will contribute to the customers’ satisfaction. We are working with appropriate stakeholders and service providers to make sure that the price is reduced significantly and the service is affordable for the citizens of Vanuatu.
I have read something that I really like in your website. It is that “our imagination, clarity of thought and clear leadership stimulates innovative thinking that meets the needs of tomorrow.” How do you apply that imagination to develop your country?
There is a simple example; at the moment we just imagine those who are living in the rural areas. Majority of them are illiterate in terms of writing and if you give them a paper and a mobile phone surely they will not pick the paper or a pen. But they will pick a mobile phone. What had happened is that when they pick a pen they then, will start to think and take their time on what to write, how they will spell a word that they will write and or whether using Bislama or English. We realized that challenge and is a reason why TRR decided to take further steps by delivering a lot more of awareness and educational programs for the citizens across the country. We went out to other villages and came up with a strategy to use those who know their communities well. We called them “Community Consumer Champions (CCC)” for TRR. We advertise, consult with them, selected and appointed them. By having representation at the community level we know that the important information we provide are disseminated well because they know their people better and they know who can write and who cannot. Through that initiative it was very productive for the TRR to continue to utilize their service and assistance. By engaging them, we are also contributing to their family and general welfare and development.
We want the citizens to understand what can be done given the telecommunications network (both voice and or internet) are already available. By getting them to understand, it will assist them to, for example making calls and sending emails to hotels and resorts to say that they have some pineapple for sell. These are some of the examples of what we have come up with. That is something easy that they will understand. However, there also a major challenge for majority of elderly users (to effectively utilize the technology and network coverage to positively impact their daily operations).
We also asked ourselves on some of the works that TRR is currently undertaking for example, how can we bridge the digital divide; from those who cannot read or write to elite users of Telecommunications. TRR is going through or effectively utilizing the champions in a simple way and as a start to address the matter. We don’t make them read a lot of book. We provide tablets for them and then guide them through on how to effectively use the device to assist them with their required task. We teach them how to use Gmail, how to send emails to hotels and resorts for example and now they are helping out a lot in their respective communities so these are the examples of what TRR is currently undertaking.
Before we had a lot of complaints because they don’t understand and they were thinking and perceiving that Digicel and similarly Telecom Vanuatu are ripping them off. We did our homework and learnt that there is a gap ‘to understand not just the terms and conditions of the services provided but, also more other information and advertisements provided by the Service providers’.
You are an incredible leader in a sector leading by men. Mrs. Baniala, how is it being a woman decision maker in Vanuatu? Do have any that buys for the next generations?
First of all I must thank the former Government Chief Information Officer (Mr. Fred Samuel), the Evaluation Committee (Head of Chamber of Commerce, Head of Judicial Services and Governor of Reserve Bank) to the Regulator’s position who all was brave to recommend me to the Hon. Prime Minister as the best candidate to take up the role. I also give my special thank you to the former Hon. Prime Minister (Hon. Sato Kilman Livtunvanu) who was the Minister responsible for Telecommunications at that time, who has taken up the risk to accept and appoint me to take up this challenging role after receiving the recommendations. I extend my sincere gratitude to the current Hon. Prime Minister (Hon. Charlot S. Tabimasmas) and all Government authorities and senior Officials that I work closely with for their support provided to me. I can only get my deliverables delivered as expected when I have those faithful support, trust and confidence on me.
And that support as I believe is effective because I must always humble myself and must also accept that in Vanuatu there are very limited women leaders at the national level, thus lead with respect and due diligence. In the Telecommunications world in Vanuatu, it is men lead, which means that when I am in the midst of all the men, this is what I am experiencing and applying; I am not leading the discussions unless it is a mandate for me to lead. I am there but I have to have a respect and be humbled to be in the midst of everymen leaders. Then, there comes a time when they will ask me to provide my views and that is the opportunity to take, and provided to them my perspectives and views. If I start to act smarter in front of all men leaders, and say, “it’s me”, or promote the “me” attitude, it is not a good start to maintain that integrity. In Vanuatu you don’t do that, and even more when you are a woman, you are fighting a losing battle if you choose to take that approach. You must be able to humble yourself and run with what’s there, but, make sure your voice is heard and be confident with your views and contributions. It’s an evident thing that you know you will achieve and prove to everyone. That’s very important for a female leader in Vanuatu. Another thing that is very important for female leaders who will read this is that, when you take a leading role in the men’s world, do not start distracting all leaders or surrounding leaders and importantly not to distrust and downgrading your associate workers.
What is expected is to come in, sit quiet and understand your people before you lead. That is an appropriate approach and that surely will give attention to everyone. So in my today’s experience, as this is one year ago being the first Ni-Vanuatu and first Female Regulator, I am very fortunate that I have been going through that process until I got all the support I have today. It is not easy, in the beginning as I was nervous about it, but by the way I handled it and with confidence and trust on my leadership skills and by positively indicating my independence, that has positively signaled a message and trust and confidence they have on me as a female leader.
For what you would like to be remembered in the future, in the history of the telecommunication and radiotelecomunications in Vanuatu?
I have already been the very first female and the very first Ni Vanuatu regulator. That’s one. Another thing is that I am really passionate about is getting everybody to utilize the available service and to help them in one way or the other to make sure that they are not abused by what is made available for them especially internet and voice services. I know that there are a lot of people that have social problems. But I am going out, even with my CEO level, I’ve been in some village communities informing everybody that were around that time that: “it is not right creating social abuses or other crimes when the Telecommunications Services were provided with a vision, with a goal and with objectives that the services are to be positively used to assist you”. If the network is available in schools, use it for educational purposes to assist you in your daily operations and studies. If it is available at the health vicinity, use it to help you to get healing. So that’s one thing I am supervising. There are some people with the disabilities and they don’t have that opportunity to use the services at all. When I see them I want to help. I know, I can’t save the world but at least I do something somewhere. I do a lot for the people with the disabilities in the past years to help them out and see what kind of project can be provided to assist them through available telecommunication services but it is timely and progressing slowly because we need leaders who have the same vision and passion.
As you perfectly know, the readers of HBR include many of the world’s most important business and political leaders. What final message would you like to send them about Vanuatu and also about TRR?
Vanuatu is a unique country that has its own unique Cultural and Christian values and including modern values. The traditional values that we have, and our customs, cultures and traditions are very important that makes Vanuatu so unique and friendly. We smile because at home we were brought up with smiling faces and laughter. We share because we were brought up to share with limited resources we have. We share everything, our food and even our clothes, which in some cultures are not allow too but in Vanuatu, it is part of our culture to share. Those are our values that we were brought up with and we want to maintain.
For TRR I ask myself, how could I promote ICT to maintain those values and it is my passion to do so. This is what I want to do and also that is my message, “to do appropriate things” to maintain Vanuatu’s status of the happiest country in the world. These are the values that make Vanuatu the happiest country twice already.
In terms of Telecommunications/ICT development and its regulatory regime, Vanuatu Regulator Institution has been recognized as one of the exemplar in the region. TRR will continue to strive for the best to maintain its status at an international level. TRR has performed significantly, promoting positive use of ICT to help maintain and to protect our values. I also wish to inform all readers and leaders across the world that Vanuatu is the place to be, is paradise with its own challenges that we see some of them to be minor at our level. That’s us...!