Seychelles, Republic of: Interview with Mr Benjamin Choppy

Mr Benjamin Choppy

Principal Secretary (Department of Information & Communication Technology)

Mr Benjamin Choppy

As a beautiful paradise in the Indian Ocean, Seychelles competes with many other island nations across the globe, from South East Asia to the Caribbean, as well as with nearby countries. Nevertheless, you’ve managed to position yourselves as one of the top tourism destinations worldwide. But what about the business culture in Seychelles?

I think it depends on whom you ask this question. In my own personal view, I think that the local businessmen and entrepreneurs are actually more innovative than people generally give them credit for. I also think that on the government side a lot has been done to make the business environment more conducive. There is some more to be done to make it even better but I observe that there has been overall progress. There are of course challenges; I believe for local businesses the more common issues are probably access to capital and land, but there again, there are initiatives in that regard

Seychelles is fundamentally a very small market. I think this is an absolute constraint and sometimes you may not have the economies of scale that businesses would look for, and sometimes that is also reflected in the sector I'm in specifically. Nevertheless, I would say the business environment is improving.

Since President Faure took office, there is a wind of change in Seychelles; emphasis has been made on good governance and transparency. Could you describe how you are implementing these principles, as a department under the Vice President’s portfolio?

The Department of ICT (DICT) is cross-cutting across government and even nationally. In such a setup, I think it makes sense for us to continue being under one of the highest offices, especially given our activities concerning electronic government initiatives. This is because in E-Government we need to ensure interoperability of systems and cross-organizational case processing. We do need to ensure that there is an integration of systems so that there is deep cross-organizational case processing. It would be far more difficult if we had systems that are in little silos in government. Therefore, if we design integration and interoperability in your systems from the ground up, it pays dividends when the integration of all these systems and functionalities become a necessity. On that level, I think the correct strategy has been maintained.

In terms of transparency, accountability, and governance, I think that by nature e-Government and ICT systems, in general, are inherently enablers of promoting and supporting the practice of these values. As an example, when we have key laws, there is a stage where people can give their inputs before the law is even sent to the Assembly for discussion. In support of this, there can be an appropriate online service or tool that can collect these inputs and assists in their processing. This is very much in line with the concept of e-participation whereby many countries e-participation portals have been implemented for such purposes. Transparency in government decision-making and accountability is also something where eGovernment implementation can help. ICT systems can provide the means so that entities, individuals or businesses are enabled to interact with Government to be able to follow their cases and status. This is something we have always tried to implement in systems. So this new direction can only make it easier for us to do so, I expect.

One of the main issues targeted in the ICT plan is the collaboration with local and international partners to improve the National ICT policy and detailed strategic plan. Could you name a few of national and international partners you are collaborating or planning to collaborate with?

I believe we must relook at the strategic plan are we are in need of an update.

In terms of the existing policy, I would say more emphasis needs to be put in certain areas; for instance, on cyber security. It is there in the original policy document but I think that on the strategy angle we will have to put more systems in place because cyber security or rather the cyber-threat is a rapidly evolving environment. There are things now that in the past decade were not considered to be cyber security issues that we now need to cater for. We need some specific additional policies in regards to cyber security, and then obviously the strategy that comes with it for tackling possible threats.

As we move into the new electronic environment in a much more significant way, there are also acts that need to be implemented now. A classic one is the Electronic Transactions Act. This addresses electronic transactions and sets equivalence between physical ones. It includes setting the equivalence between physical signatures and documents, and electronic ones. This particular act needs to be implemented fully.

Currently, we have departments on the e-government side that are very close to working fully electronically, including the submission of forms, signatures and even the payment of a service. We are very close now to having fully integrated 100% electronic services.  We have to implement certain regulations that address such developments.

Are you looking for international partners in order to implement these developments and to gather the necessary know-how to successfully implement it?

We are already engaged with many international partners in terms of either solutions or support for these developments. However, I think we need to address cyber security, electronic transactions, and data protection so that we can also transact at comparable levels with other international partners. This is since nowadays traders and other organizations within tax jurisdictions like those of OECD countries, transact essentially in an electronic manner.

A collaboration with SIB has been envisaged so as to promote and facilitate the deployment of e-commerce in Seychelles. What impact can e-commerce have in Seychelles? Why invest in it as a company?

In many ways, I would say e-commerce has already come to Seychelles. In my opinion, the key change in Seychelles that allowed e-commerce to take place was driven by the banks, which introduced Internet merchant accounts. Prior to this, people literally had to have a card from another country to be able to transact online. It was also the case when doing a money transfer, a client necessarily had to physically go to the banks to do this. This was cumbersome. However once the three main banks had implemented their own e-banking platforms and offer card-based services, e-commerce became accessible to many more people. Nevertheless, the vast majority of e-commerce is externally based.

Referring to a statistic that I came across a while back: the postal service’s area that has had the most growth is actually that of small packages, and the reason behind this is precisely the increase in the use of online shopping transactions, which is e-commerce. As such, I would say that the local population here probably is very conversant with using e-commerce, whether to buy new books, clothes or other items.

I think the area we need to look more into is for firms in Seychelles to also consider leveraging ICT/e-commerce-type solutions and strategies to effectively expand their market base. How much you can sell in Seychelles is limited because we're a geographically isolated island with a small population. However, it doesn’t mean that what you're producing might not have a wider appeal.

There are very innovative people here and already there are some entrepreneurs in Seychelles who have moved into e-commerce. Either they are focusing primarily on the local market or looking at other markets outside. In the tourism sector, the advent of online booking systems has very much changed the dynamics in this sector in Seychelles. Long ago, for example, a small guesthouse or a small hotel might have been totally dependent on a company to bring in their tourists or visitors. I think nowadays the vast majority of these SME-type establishments no longer depend on other companies. They advertise directly and most of the transactions are electronic; I believe it is good for the SMEs in this sector to also develop.

For e-commerce to be launched, you need good infrastructure. And we've had some complaints about the Internet here. How are you trying to improve the Internet accessibility?

Our strategy has been multifold. I think the first issue we had was the amount of bandwidth coming into the country as we previously were totally dependent on satellite and that carried certain limitations. In 2012, we landed the first optic fiber submarine cable system in Seychelles. This was SEAS (Seychelles East Africa System). So in my opinion, the amount of international bandwidth that the country can deliver to the market is not an issue anymore.

Next is access to that international bandwidth. Now, all operators - Cable & Wireless, Airtel, Kokonet, and Intelvision—have had very aggressive projects to build out infrastructure to provide much better services. So now, when we look at International Telecommunications reports, we see that the quality of service in Seychelles overall is very good.

I'll give you actual examples of this. In terms of mobile broadband, operators have now deployed 4G networks practically nationwide. So on the mobile platform, you would expect the speed to be very fast. Even on the fixed platform, at least 2 operators have got projects implementing FTTH, which is “Fiber To The Home.” Unfortunately, these also take time to deploy completely. We’re talking over periods of three years for them to finish deploying FTTH. It's a progressive thing but in Victoria, you should be able to get fiber to your business relatively easily. This should also be the case in new residential areas that have been implemented recently.

We have other initiatives like free access, free public Wi-Fi hotspots for locals, which should be finalized this year. We also have other projects, for instance, we are working to make sure that schools have suitable Internet access. This is also targeted to become operational this year.

Great effort is being dedicated to making a Government Services (E-Services) available online for access by businesses and the public. What impact will these have not only transparency but in bureaucratic efficiency?

It will be more efficient and faster for businesses, as they will be able to transact with the government at any time and from anywhere. In terms of transparency, I would say that it depends on the e-services. There are services, for example, like taxation, where you cannot make certain information available to the public. This is because some of the data will fall under the personal data category.

Now, in terms of other services where the information can be put in the public domain, e-services do provide visibility to a larger part of the population and even to businesses. In our vision, businesses will be able, for example, to submit their tenders electronically and get the results online. Now, to an extent, it is already being done, but it is not a fully integrated system.

The eGovernment platform could also assist in the establishment of startups here in Seychelles. What is your opinion?

For business startups, it will be an advantage in terms of company registration because it will be possible to do it online, and once the registrar has sorted out its own internal processes they (startups) can also pay for the associated administrative fees and get their approvals and their permits much faster. In that way, we will help startups. This is through increased efficiency in Business-Government interactions.

It lends itself very well to help them in terms of the processing that they need to go through in order to get into the market and even to operate. If businesses need to import products, they can file their request electronically and then do the process from there.

eBiz Guides is the premier guidebook for business globetrotters. What would you like to add to the international community that only sees Seychelles as a touristic destination?

In terms of the ICT infrastructure, we have probably one of the most advanced ones in the region; moreover, Seychelles has always been an open market in the ICT sector. In terms of facilitating the processing of interactions with the government, there are already many initiatives looking into that and therefore the ease of doing business will only be getting better and better.