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Wider Internet Access to Shift Africa into Knowledge-Based Economy

World Economic Forum on Africa hopes to boost digital enfranchisement across the continent.

Photo: Mobile internet: Set to transform pan-African trade.
Mobile internet: Set to transform pan-African trade.
Photo: Mobile internet: Set to transform pan-African trade.
Mobile internet: Set to transform pan-African trade.

Increased access to digital technology could give African countries the opportunity to transform their economies – that was the overall message from this year's World Economic Forum on Africa (WEF Africa) event. Under the umbrella theme of Connecting Africa's Resources through Digital Transformation, delegates from the worlds of business, politics and the wider community gathered in Rwanda to consider just how African countries could harness technology to meet their development goals.

Addressing the fact that less than 30% of Africans currently have internet access, Alex Wong, a member of the WEF Africa Executive Committee, said: "Low internet penetration significantly impacts on a country's ability to participate in the digital economy, an increasingly important priority for development as Africa enters the Fourth Industrial Revolution."

In his own address, Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, urged that Africa should take advantage of this technology-driven fourth industrial revolution to transform itself into a full partner in the global economy. He said: "Technology is a strategic tool for tackling many of the challenges faced by Africa. Information and Communications Technology (ICT) solutions in the financial markets, for example, need to be scaled up in order to make the markets more viable. Healthcare systems and education are also key areas that would surely benefit from greater internet adoption in Africa."

For his own part, Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank and Co-chair of WEF Africa, maintained the one of the key priorities for the continent was the need for full electrification in order to enable greater access to digital technology. He said: "Africa is tired of being in the dark. In order to help tackle this, the African Development Bank has now pledged US$12.5 billion over the next five years in support of a new electricity roll-out programme."

This move to digitally enfranchise Africa – along with other regions of the world currently lagging behind – is the focus of the WEF's Internet For All programme. This is a global initiative aimed at developing models for public-private collaboration that will lead to accelerated internet access and adoption. The programme's first project will look to connect 75 million Africans in Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan and Uganda.

Commenting on the important of the initiative, Jean-Philbert Nsengimana, Rwanda's Minister for Youth and Information Communication Technology, said: "Achieving internet for all is a critical priority for Africa and the only way to make sure that it can take full advantage of the enormous current and future opportunities."

Photo: WEF Africa: Committed to connecting the unconnected.
WEF Africa: Committed to connecting the unconnected.
Photo: WEF Africa: Committed to connecting the unconnected.
WEF Africa: Committed to connecting the unconnected.

It is hoped that wider access to technology will result in Africa being less reliant on exporting raw materials and see it moving more to being a knowledge and innovation-based economy. In line with this, the conference sought to identify priorities and actions for Africa's leaders as they look to build the framework for the more diversified economies that could flourish in the digital, convergent marketplaces of tomorrow.

In order to deliver an enabling environment for this, Elsie Kanza, the WEF's Head of Africa, called for strong institutions across the continent and greater regional integration, as well as increased investment in infrastructure, education and industry. She said: "There is vast scope for public-private cooperation to help realise these goals."

It was also acknowledged that Africa has already made considerable progress in terms of wider internet access, with digital technology now having a major impact on African economies and society. For many delegates, it was less a question of a new digital revolution so much as capitalising on the existing foundations for digital transformation, while ensuring that the internet is used more effectively when it comes to addressing Africa's development goals.

While connecting the unconnected remains a challenge, internet access – largely through mobile telephony – has increased rapidly in certain African hubs. A number of countries, including Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya and Egypt, already have thriving ICT-based economies and progressive digital landscapes. This has lured a number of technology giants – notably Google, IBM and Intel – to launch substantial operations across Africa.

It was also noted that much of the uptake of technology in Africa is being driven by the demographic youth bulge. This has seen young Africans keen to adopt new technology trends, resulting in changes to the way many bank, transfer cash, trade and buy consumer products and services.

Importantly, it was agreed that continued innovation in ICT would enable the continent to drive its own transformation. Africa's largest untapped market – according to the African Union – is internal trade. With this in mind, it is hoped that the digital economy will help integrate the continent's fragmented markets.

Tellingly, of all the continents, Africa has the lowest proportion of intra-regional trade, something that accounts for just 18% of its exports. It is now hoped that connecting more people on the continent via the internet will help boost this figure.

Table: World Internet Usage and Population by Region (2015)
Table: World Internet Usage and Population by Region (2015)

Mark Ronan, Special Correspondent, Kigali

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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