Africa tipped to be emerging technology powerhouse
On Africa Day, the continent has been hailed as an important next growth frontier, with the potential to be an innovation and technology powerhouse.
This was the word of Bocar Ba, member of the UN’s Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development and CEO of SAMENA Telecommunications Council, during a virtual high-level roundtable discussion this morning to commemorate this year’s Africa Day.
The roundtable, hosted to by the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies, was a celebration of the annual day, which commemorates the founding of the Organisation of African Unity, now known as the African Union.
ICT ministers from three SADC countries, and industry experts, joined by minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, gathered to unpack the key strategic challenges and opportunities facing African countries in the ICT sector, and the related impact on the broader economy.
The discussion was held under the theme: “Accelerating digital transformation in challenging times, throughout the year with national, regional and international initiatives”.
Speaking to the significance of Africa Day, Ba said it’s important to appreciate the continent’s diversity, cohesiveness and its leaders’ vision to make Africa the first continent in the world to focus on youth, innovation and digital development.
“Africa has been globally recognised as the host of the next revolution in socio-economic development. Almost half of the 40-fastest growing economies are on the continent.
“While the prevailing pandemic has spared no one and no economy, including African nations, the continent still bears several strengths that it can bank on to emerge as a global economic and technology powerhouse.
“Africa’s undying spirit and massive techno-economic potential are key catalysts for thriving in these challenging times.”
Ba explained that financing models for sustainable broadband development is vital for the continent, especially because access to broadband, and the services and content disseminated through it, are essential for people to participate in today’s modern world.
He revealed the broadband commission’s findings concluded that the primary reasons people don’t have access to broadband connectivity are three-fold: the persistent coverage gap, upgrade and adoption gaps.
“While the coverage gap relates mainly to uneconomical and hard to reach areas, the upgrade and adoption gaps can be found anywhere across the globe, with African economies being among the most affected.”
According to Ba, the cause of these gaps can be attributed to structural, economic, socio-economic and cultural variables. However, one recurring theme remains the lack of necessary funds and financial means to roll out and upgrade infrastructure.
Based on the World Bank’s estimates, Africa will require $109 billion to fund these connectivity gaps, he stated. “Over the next four years, Africa must be on a path towards sufficient availability of funds. The continent must also address affordability, access to devices, and ICT capacity building and skills development.
“To close the gaps, massive public-private partnerships and innovative stakeholder engagement and efforts are required. While we have managed to already connect 53% of the world, it’s very clear that existing mechanisms of funding and investment into building broadband infrastructure are falling short and cannot master the enormous task alone.”
Broadband is no longer a luxury, but a necessity and a general purpose technology, Ba stated. “From a basic human need, broadband is now a basic human right and a public good.”
Accelerating digital transformation
During her keynote, Ndabeni-Abrahams said even though the dark COVID-19 cloud hangs over this year’s Africa Day, the continent must remain committed to the cause of accelerating digital transformation even in challenging times.
The minister told the virtual audience that the COVID-19 pandemic has put human genius to test in a manner that knows no parallel in recent history. Conversely, the pandemic must be viewed as an opportunity for Africa to leapfrog to new heights, exploiting new opportunities brought by the advent of the fourth industrial revolution.
According to Ndabeni-Abrahams, the COVID-19 crisis has made it a global priority to connect the unconnected and has demonstrated the importance of access to broadband.
“There has been a significant increase in the demand for ICTs and the use of the Internet. Unfortunately, this has been accompanied by rising inequality, whereby lack of access to the Internet leaves our disadvantaged communities more vulnerable.
“Access to broadband will enable our people to access health services, education and governmental services online when necessary, and thus reduce the need for public gatherings. It will also enable greater access to the rapidly-growing e-commerce sector.”
Ba concurred that the prevailing pandemic showed ICT can help in time of crisis.
“What has emerged from the crisis is that meaningful broadband connectivity and affordable access to it is fundamental going forward and there needs to be bold approaches to ensure access is granted to everyone.
“Given the change role that broadband plays, more stakeholders need to be involved to build broadband and incentivise broadband adoption. Conventional ways of addressing the gaps may still apply, but many have become obsolete and need to be revamped,” he concluded.