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Still much work ahead to digitally transform Africa

By , ITWeb
Africa , 12 Nov 2021

While Africa has come far in the past 18 months in its digital transformation, there is still a great deal of potential to fully embrace digital transformation and equip the continent’s youth with the skills they need to thrive in a digital economy.

This is one of the takeaways from the Digital Africa Summit, hosted by Huawei Technologies as part of AfricaCom 2021 this week.

Delegates and keynote speakers agreed that achieving this transformation means going beyond simply adapting and evolving new technologies to old ways of doing things.

It requires a full commitment to a ground-up transformation without delay.

Yang Chen, VP, Huawei Southern Africa pointed out that the digital economy already accounts for more than 5% of GDP in some African countries, and that number could be more than doubled in countries that take a committed approach to digital transformation.

“Digitalisation spurs the development of new industries such as e-commerce and e-Government. It also disrupts existing industries to ensure lower costs and higher productivity and can empower emerging technologies like renewable energy. Digital technologies also increase economic resilience against shocks like COVID-19.”

Joe Mucheru, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communications, added: “Last year, when COVID-19 hit, the ICT sector was one of the few to grow exponentially.”

But in order for that resilience and the wider opportunities of digital transformation to be realised, the right kind of environment needs to be created.

Barriers to growth

“Digital transformation cannot happen unless barriers to growth are reduced or completely removed,” said Chen. “Investment in infrastructure is also key to a digitally transformed economy.”

Decision-makers, particularly in government, are key to removing these barriers who often worry about the risk of putting their energy behind any one specific technology.

But, as Sharoda Rapeti, Non-Executive Director, Delta Partners, explained, “Delaying decisions creates a multitude of risks which has a massive impact on the economy.”

Instead, she suggests that governments do as much as they can to “create critical mass to put their countries on their way to a digital economy.”

The opportunity, she believes, lies in owning the verticals not yet claimed by the big technology platforms, as well as bringing digital technology to traditional areas of strength such as minerals and agriculture.

Most crucial, however, is the building of digital skills, especially among young people.

“How much are we leveraging scarce skills to build a digital economy?” Rapeti asked.

John Omo, Secretary-General of the African Telecommunications Union (ATU), said COVID-19 illustrated how wide the skills gap is in Africa.

“It was not just the lack of access to technology that led to African economies falling behind during the pandemic, but also the lack of skills. This situation provoked the realisation that as much as we must increase coverage, we must address the skills among youth.”

An example of a country that has successfully embraced digital transformation is China, which now has the biggest broadband network in the world and is home to the vast majority of the globe’s 5G base stations.

“China is also an example of how technology is embedded within the economy,” said Rapeti, who pointed out that mobile payments in that country now make up 16% of its GDP.

Chen Hui, Deputy Director of Industry and Planning Research Institute CAICT, said the overall digital economy accounts for 38.6% of China’s GDP and employs more than 200-million people.

In Africa, some countries are seeing the benefits of digital transformation and have set it as a national priority.

Among the most countries with the most advanced digital transformation programmes are Botswana and Kenya.

“Botswana has developed a digital transformation strategy called SmartBots to deliver government services,” said Thulaganyo Merafe Segokgo , Botswana’s Minister of Transport and Communications. “Implementations of these programmes continue to help Botswana develop into a knowledge-based economy.”

The aim, he said, is to put all government services online within the next three years.

“There is the opportunity for accelerated growth with the right investments,” he added, pointing out that partnerships with private companies such as Huawei are crucial to achieving it.

According to Mucheru, Kenya intends to keep its “momentum going and speed up the development of the digital economy.

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