IN THE QUEST FOR DIGITAL OPTIONS, MIND THE OLDER PERSONS

A message from URBRA on International Day of Older Persons, 1st October 2021. By Martin A. Nsubuga, CEO URBRA.

As Uganda joins the rest of the world to commemorate the International Day of Older Persons, the Uganda Retirement Benefits Regulatory Authority (URBRA) reiterates its commitment to ensure that all citizens access sector services, regardless of age.

The 2021 theme, “Digital Equity for All Ages” draws our attention to the fact that the raging digital revolution may leave some sections of the population behind. Particularly, older persons may not be able to cope with the speed at which technologies are changing from the traditional mechanical and analogue systems to the digital.

The digital revolution has transformed all aspects of life including the way we live, work, access services, and interact. The Covid19 pandemic made the digital revolution even more real. With restricted movement, many had to rely on online digital platforms for nearly everything – online shopping, banking, education, disease surveillance and access to health services.

Given the profile of older persons in Uganda, one wonders if the digital revolution reflects equity and inclusion. The Ministry of Gender and Social Development in 2020 released a report, The State of Older Persons in Uganda, which indicated that older persons constitute 4.3% of Uganda’s population. The report further indicated that 98% of older persons live in rural areas and more than half are illiterate. Their situation is further compounded by old-age ailments and disabilities, low incomes and general old-age poverty.

Meanwhile, digitalization continues at a high rate. By January 2021, there were an estimated 12 million internet users in Uganda, and 28 million mobile phone connections. However, in a study on access and usage of communication services, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) found that access and usage of internet and mobile phones is lowest among older persons. The study found that among the population aged 75 and above, in a period of three months, only 12.5% had used a computer, none had used the internet, and only 30% had used a mobile phone.

Achieving digital equity is one of the urgent callings of our time. Indeed, digital technologies come with numerous advantages and opportunities. For example, people can enjoy all services from the comfort of their homes. People get to enjoy high speed, reduced costs and increased reliability. There is no denying that the future is going to become even more digital! But who is monitoring potential ageism and the possibility of leaving older persons behind?

In the Retirement Benefits Sector, the digital transformation is quickly taking root. The International Organization of Pension Supervisors, in a report about the impact of digitalization of financial services on pension supervisory practices, observes that the financial sector is the largest user of innovative technologies and a major driver of the digital transformation occurring in economies around the world.

In Uganda, the Retirement Benefits Sector has embraced digital technologies, mostly to improve services. URBRA for example, has availed all information about sector regulation online. Members are able to lodge complaints online. Recently, the regulator has adopted virtual onsite inspections and provided a guideline on how to conduct virtual Annual General Meetings (AGMs). At sector level, members of voluntary schemes are able to remit their contributions, receive statements and access payments through mobile money platforms. These developments have improved services for savers, reducing movement, long queues and saving time.

Given that senior citizens are key stakeholders in the retirement benefits sector, it is important to ensure that they are not left behind by the digital revolution. Hence, in the process of improving services through digital options, all sector actors must bear in mind the unique needs and challenges of older persons. They shouldn’t be excluded from digital-driven services, on account of age.

There’s the argument that the older persons, having retired and accessed their benefits, are already out of the system and may not immediately feel the impact of digitalization.  However, it is worth noting that with new products on the market such as Income Draw Downs, annuities, retirement medical cover, older persons will remain a key segment of the sector clientele. Moreover, as life expectancy improves, there will be many retirees living much longer in retirement, accessing sector services from different service providers.

It is therefore important to innovate around the needs of older persons, and sensitise them on how to embrace and adapt to digital technologies. Individual schemes can even develop easy-to-use apps for their older members.

On a cautionary note, service providers must be aware of the risks such as cybercrime, misinformation, intrusion of privacy… caused by the rapid adoption of digital technologies. Older persons may not be astute enough to detect these risks, so it is important for their trustees and service providers to protect them.

Even as we celebrate the elders for their diligent service, those who are still youthful and productive must remember that old age is coming. With digitalization, retirement services get better each day, but you can only enjoy them if you save and plan accordingly. Life in retirement is more meaningful if you have a regular cashflow to live on.  It gets even better when you have the cashflow, sit in the comfort of your retirement home and access key services via digital platforms.

Save for retirement and aim for digital equity.