Interview with Mohamed Kinaanath, Minister of State for Homeland Security & Technology, Head of the NCIT, Maldives

Interview with Mohamed Kinaanath, Minister of State for Homeland Security & Technology, Head of the NCIT, Maldives

How would you explain the rapid growth of the Maldives’ ICT sector, and what potential does it have to diversify the country’s economy?

In terms of internet penetration rate and number of mobile subscribers, the Maldives is ahead of other countries in the region. Our internet penetration rate is around 85%, which is closer to high-tech Asian countries like Malaysia or Thailand than it is to India, for example. The number of mobile phone subscriptions is 1 million, which is twice our population, implying that most people have more than one phone.

As such, we have the potential to become a regional ICT hub but we need the right regulations and infrastructure to capitalize on our existing strengths. We are developing an e-governance platform, where citizens can log in to a single access point for government services. At the moment, services are provided through a range of different portals and websites provided by different organizations, which means there is no standardization or harmonization between different systems.

This issue is being addressed through the oneGov initiative, which will encompass and integrate all the existing platforms, including the national registration system, the electronic ID system, and the case management system, and bring them all under one roof.


What are NCIT’s (National Centre for Information Technology) responsibilities under its new management, and what are its current priorities?

Our mandate is to drive digitalization. To do this we formulate policies and procedures together with other government agencies to develop software and align regulations for the promotion of a more digital society. In the past, different sections of government developed their own systems without any standardization of procedures or formats, leading to inconsistencies which make it harder to merge them into a single platform. Our main priority is to completely automate the provision of government services that citizens can interact with seamlessly; without having to physically go to a government building, as these services will be more efficiently delivered online.


How would you assess the country’s level of connectivity given the growing demand from the ICT sector, and how can infrastructure be improved?

Our current infrastructure, connectivity and internet penetration is generally good, although some of our more remote islands are not connected; hence the 15% of our citizens that do not have connectivity. A decade ago, our internet access rate was 44%, and since then that figure has doubled. We hope to reach 100% soon. We are currently expanding and upgrading our national data center, which holds most of the critical data on our citizens, as well as building a backup data center in a second location. We are connected by subsea cables to the rest of the South Asian Region and we are also connected to Europe, which will improve the coverage of our services across the country.


What is NCIT doing to support SMEs and tech startups, and what are some examples of leading local tech companies?

There are many SMEs in the Maldives and many of them have been founded recently by young people who understand technology and have great ambitions. Although our focus right now is integrating and delivering government services, we also support the burgeoning private sector. But as well as being recipients of support, SMEs also contribute to the wider digitalization of society, providing innovative services to our prolific tourism sector, which represents 58% of our economy.


How would you assess the level of digitization of the public and private sectors and how can the Maldives reach its full digital potential? 

The initiatives to digitize the public and the private sectors are currently operating independently of each other. These systems need to be integrated so that they can be accessed and delivered more effectively. For example, eFASS, the national ID platform, is being expanded to cover the private sector. At this point eFASS covers almost 50% of our population, and this figure is going up all the time, especially as we continue to get the private sector onboard.


How important is cybersecurity to NCIT and what is the government doing to protect the country from potential cyber threats?

We have experienced cyber-attacks in the past. Indeed, they happen in some form every day, but NCIT has always managed to suppress them. Following the most recent attacks, NCIT and the government developed a concept paper that was submitted to the president who has since decided to establish a national cyber security agency. This is likely to happen in the coming month.


As Minister of State for Homeland Security and Technology, what are your priorities and what vision do you have for the country’s nascent ICT sector?

When the new government took over in November, their manifesto included a pledge to promote digitalization and to focus on the initiatives outlined above. Accordingly, we are working hard to realize this ambition and fully implement our plans through a series of short-term strategic plans. We have already launched our first one-year plan and are now following up by formulating a five-year plan. The president also wants a 20-year national IT plan, currently in development, to consolidate our more long-term direction. The Maldives has a large, tech-savvy young population, which will facilitate implementing these changes.

For the time being we are focusing on integrating our platforms to deliver government services and move to a more paperless system. The framework for the “Smart Maldives” concept is being developed, which will apply cutting-edge concepts like artificial intelligence, the internet of things, and big data to the country.

One of the key mandates of NCIT is to expand science education. Most of our higher-educational courses have traditionally been in business-related subjects and we want to promote more science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses to prioritize technical innovation across the economy.

Technology can and will improve the economy of the country, and if the technology is embedded into the system, the system will become more efficient.


Do you have a message you would like to leave for the readers of USA TODAY?

Technology is the future of any sector. As a developing country we have the potential to embed technology into our economy, and we have the infrastructure and the tech-savvy youth to make that happen and become a regional technology hub.