Digital transformation in the Kyrgyz Republic

(Find the story behind this photo at the bottom of the article).

The Kyrgyz Republic has an ambitious digital transformation policy. And it needs to be ambitious! The country is almost entirely mountainous – 94% of the country lies at over 1000 metres above sea level – so building internet infrastructure is a challenge to say the least.

Talant Sultanov (JST 2013) has risen to this challenge and is a key player in this digital transformation policy. A self-confessed ‘wearer of many hats’, Talant’s career has been varied – he has experience in international relations, education, government and finance while also never forgetting the life lessons he learned as a restaurant dishwasher during his studies in the United States – and at the root of everything was his desire to contribute positively to his country’s development.

It turned out that for Talant, the sweet spot of all these experiences lay in the field of Information and Communications Technology (ICT). He became an advocate for digital transformation in Kyrgyzstan, calling attention to its importance as a powerful enabler of inclusive and sustainable economic growth and its importance for moving forward modernisation and regional development.

Talant has been working on the development and implementation of successive, successful stages of Kyrgyzstan’s digitalisation policies since 2014 but the Covid-19 pandemic intensified the urgency of this work. Although Kyrgyzstan has had a breakthrough in recent years with the progress of its internet connectivity, the reality was that in 2020, more than 60% of the country’s population was not covered by any form of internet and those with access were mainly concentrated in urban areas. The country’s digital divide was highlighted by the pandemic with school children being particularly hard hit when learning was taken online.

Although the Ministry of Education moved quickly in March 2020 to connect more schools to the internet, some villages deemed just too hard to reach due to the remoteness of their locations.  On hearing that these communities would be totally cut off in the pandemic, Talant galvanised the Kyrgyz Chapter of the Internet Society – a global non-profit that builds community broadband networks and teaches digital literacy.  As their co-founder and Chair, Talant and his team had already been working with the Ministry of Education for a couple of years on internet accessibility for schools. They set themselves a challenge to take on what seemed an intractable problem to connect these schools.

Since 2017, the Kyrgyz Internet Society team had been installing ingenious devices containing downloaded internet content which can be accessed by those offline communities in remote locations. These devices were the size of a book and could be installed anywhere – only needing electricity to work.  Talant had come across the concept known as ‘internet-in-a-box’ in Mexico and adapted it for Kyrgyzstan, calling it ‘IlimBox’ (‘translated as science-in-a-box’).  To reach the ‘unreachable’ schools, Talant and his team took the IlimBox deliveries to the furthest corners of the country – undertaking dangerous treks on foot or on horseback, even carrying solar panels to those villages with no electricity supply. Eventually, by November 2020, all schools on the list were reached.

According to Talant, the seed of his digital work was sown during his John Smith Fellowship Programme in 2013. Then, as the head of the National Institute for Strategic Studies – a government think tank – his primary plan for his time in the UK was to gather information for a policy brief on improving the investment climate in Kyrgyzstan through the development of financial markets.  ‘But I also brought with me a looser idea – how to best build a knowledge economy and use new technology to help the development of my country’, says Talant.

While in the UK, his primary meetings with  UK experts focused on the process of obtaining a sovereign credit rating for Kyrgyzstan – EBRD, Fitch, Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s.  He also met with MP Pat McFadden, then a member of the Parliamentary Treasury Select Committee.  But his other idea started to take shape as he realised that the Kyrgyz Republic could focus on innovations, creativity and the knowledge economy.  When visiting Scotland, he had been struck by similarities with Kyrgyzstan – from hilly terrain to sheep farming to haggis’ resemblance to the Kyrgyz dish of Byjy – and how Scotland so successfully advertised itself to the world.  With the GREAT Britain campaign in mind,  Talant then also met Isaac Hewlings from the Business & Skills Group at the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) and visited the Centre for Creative Collaboration. It was during these meetings that Talant was introduced to the concept of creative hubs and co-working spaces as well as seeing underwater internet cables for the first time – very common today but so innovative back then.

On his return home, Talant was successful in helping Kyrgyzstan obtain a sovereign credit rating, which made country more attractive for international investors and paved the way for local companies to also get their own corporate credit ratings. In parallel, he also began working on his knowledge economy idea which started him down his digitalisation policy path.

Beginning with the founding of ‘Taza Koom’ (translated as ‘Smart Society’) which advocated for the country’s embracing of ICT, it then developed into a formal policy of the Kyrgyz government and has now become a pillar of the country’s 2040 development strategy, known as ‘Taza Koom – Jany Door’ (or ‘Smart Society – the New Future’).  Moreover, the concept has been included into a large-scale programme, ‘Digital Central Asia South Asia’ (Digital CASA) which is supported by the World Bank and aims to integrate the region into the global digital economies, enabling them to start reaping digital dividends.

Talant continues to work on large scale projects, such as the country’s strategy on climate investment.  With the Kyrgyz Internet Society, his next challenge is to make the IlimBox smart.  Project IlimBox 2.0. is an online learning platform which would allow teachers to create their own educational content and allow students to access the latest and most advanced knowledge. He also wants the wider remote communities to feel the benefit of digitalisation – that it’s  not just for the teachers and children but can be for the farmer and small businesses as well.  However, he explains there is a mindset issue to overcome.

‘Communities in the regions think digitalisation is just for people in cities. We need to train residents in remote villages in digital skills so that they too can benefit from technology. There has even been a discussion with my team about going back into the mountains to teach them how to use e-commerce websites or sites like Booking.com for attracting tourism!’

Talant concludes, ‘It really is amazing how the seed planted with the help of the John Smith Trust has now grown into a far-reaching initiative whose purpose is to make people’s lives better’.

MARCH 2021

Story behind the photo:  The logo on Talant’s Tshirt is the logo of IlimBox – an ‘i’ inside a box. The photo was taken inside the museum dedicated to the memory of Kojobkul, a famous Kyrgyz figure known for his incredible strength and whose statue is in front of the Sports Palace in Bishkek. Kojomkul lived in the high altitude village of Suusamyr 130 years ago and built the first school there. And Suusamyr is where the Kyrgyz Internet Society delivered their first IlimBox and where they brought internet connectivity for the first time to this remote community living 2500 metres above sea level.  https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/kojomkul-memorial