The Digital Age promises growth

If governments and the private sector continue to invest in infrastructure, the digital economy could add $300-billion a year to Africa’s GDP, according to discussion papers at the World Economic Forum: Africa 2017, being held in Durban, South Africa from 3 to 5 May 2017.

Two young girls attend a training on computer science at the technical school in Mellit, North Darfur. (Image: Albert Gonzalez Farran, UNAMID)

Sulaiman Philip

The Third Industrial Revolution transformed Africa. It made it easier for young Africans to create their own companies and rely less on traditional nine-to-five employment. Now comes the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the birth of a truly digital economy.

The digital economy is a key topic at the World Economic Forum: Africa 2017, being held in Durban, South Africa from 3 to 5 May 2017, and papers at the gathering have unpacked its potential.

Despite a slow start, the development of Africa’s digital infrastructure is speeding up — resulting in African digital entrepreneurs developing innovative web-based apps and new ways of doing business.

Digital apps such as mPedigree, M-Farm and Frontline SMS, have found African solutions to African challenges. Digital entrepreneurs are making it easier and safer to live, work and travel across Africa.

The digital economy is growing despite Africa trailing the rest of the world in connectivity rates — a challenge that is shaping the kind of digital products being developed. A lack of connectivity has made entrepreneurs more creative but it will constrict opportunities in the future.

The Masiphumelele, Cape Town, library offers internet access, digital literacy and computer training in a community that is mostly young and unemployed (Image: Beyond Access)

The technology-driven revolution will mean the death of routine blue- and white-collar jobs as the continent embraces automation. Employers will need more adaptable and innovative staff.

High-skilled jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) will increase. African governments eager to build on this new future need to provide the infrastructure that allows citizens to access the digital world for learning and to do business.

Governments need to embrace the innovative mind-set to build a population that creates technology and not just consumes it. They need to replace traditional approaches to education and delivering services. For example, Morocco’s e-Notary services digitises some legal services, making it less expensive to litigate.

Embracing technology such as cloud services will not only make it cheaper for governments to deliver services, but will also improve data collection and analysis which in turn improves the quality and types of services delivered.

Inclusive development

If Africa does not manage the growth of the digital transformation, the danger exists that the income gap could worsen. Administrations need to embrace the development of STEM fields. Africa will move to become a skills-based economy; an investment in 21st century education is crucial. Africa needs, as a continent and as individual countries, to introduce polices and strategies that will transform the lives of Africans. A prosperous and inclusive future for the continent requires new ways of thinking from governments today.

Data is the diamonds and gold of the digital age. It is the commodity on which societies can create opportunities. Governments need to empower their citizens by releasing data and not regulating access.

Programmes such as South Africa’s national broadband strategic plan, Connect, will make broadband access affordable to 90% of the population by 2020 and 100% by 2030. This is one way of allowing citizens to affordably participate in the information economy.

A new way to beat challenges

Africa’s digitally savvy youth are finding new solutions to intractable problems. The agriculture, health and education sector are seeing innovations that are improving the quality of life of students, pregnant women and small-scale commercial farmers, among others users, across the continent.

Legislation that creates a more business friendly environment will help to build a larger entrepreneurial pool that will increase economic growth. Embracing Microsoft’s cloud computing initiative, Africa Open for Business, has helped investors navigate complex business and governance legislations by streamlining regulations and making it easier to do business.

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs speak of “moving fast and breaking things” as they remake the world. Governments, especially African governments, do not have the luxury of moving ahead at breakneck speed without considering the consequences of their actions. So, while governments are more deliberative, they do need to embrace the world of disruption and change.

The ability to adapt to these changes will define economic growth, good governance, job creation and innovation. It is time for Africa to embrace the new motto of social network Facebook. As it grew, CEO Mark Zuckerberg refined the move fast motto: “Move fast with stable infrastructure. It may not be as catchy as move fast and break things, but it’s how we operate now.”

Africa can move beyond a continent of promise to become a continent of opportunity and growth if governments embrace the disruption and change and promise of the digital age.

For Africa to compete in the digital economy, government and private sector investment is required to build infrastructure. (Image: Eric Parker)