Leveraging Digital Transformation in a post-COVID Era: Panel Focuses on Africa’s Digital Opportunities and Obstacles, Striking an Optimistic Note

On Monday, 30 November, Portulans Institute, in partnership with the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), hosted a virtual panel event focused on leveraging digital transformation in Africa in the post-COVID era. This special event complements the series of launches previously organized by the Portulans Institute in cooperation with UNESCO. The session targeted stakeholders involved in nurturing and building a digital ecosystem in Africa, in particular policymakers, entrepreneurs, financial leaders and academics. During the panel, Portulans Institute Co-founder Dr. Bruno Lanvin also presented regional data and insights from the 2020 Network Readiness Index.

The panel, moderated by Oliver Chinganya (Director, the African Center for Statistics at UNECA), featured a line-up of high-ranking officials, ministers and private sector leaders, including:

  • Dr. Vera Songwe, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Secretary, UNECA
  • Ms. Rebecca Enonchong, CEO, AppTechs
  • Ms. Cina Lawson, Minister of Digital Economy and Telecommunication, Togo
  • Ms. Chepkemoi Magdaline, Founder and Director, EldoHub
  • Mr. Alhagie Mbow, Member of Parliament, The Gambia and Pan African Parliament
  • Mr. Nii Narku Quaynor, Former Chairman of the Board of Directors, National Information Technology Agency, Ghana
  • Mr. Hamadoun Touré, Minister of Digital Economy, Mali and former Secretary-General, ITU.

In the NRI 2020, Africa still lags behind other regions, but there are strong foundations for cooperative, digital progress

Dr. Lanvin highlighted regional data from the NRI 2020, drawing attention to Africa’s most network-ready economies: Mauritius (61), South Africa (76) and Kenya (82). With 31 African economies included in the Index, as a region, Africa records some of the largest intra-regional variations, with ranks ranging from Mauritius (61) to Chad (134). Results by pillar suggest that Africa’s main strengths are in Governance, including ICT-related regulation. However, the common weak indicators for most African countries are Access and Usage of ICTs, within the ‘People’ pillar. Dr. Lanvin stressed that for all of Africa, better data is required (for instance, due to a lack of accurate and quality data, Togo was not included in the NRI 2020). Additionally, Dr. Lanvin underlined the overwhelming importance of adopting a human-centric approach to ICTs at the core of future readiness, for policymakers and analysts alike.

COVID-19 has been a blessing and a curse for Africa’s digital transformation

Drawing on her experiences building a digital economy and preparing the groundwork for a digital transformation in Togo, Hon. Lawson commented that “COVID-19 was a blessing and a curse… Some of the digital projects [such as mobile payment and digital IDs] that would have taken years happened in a matter of days – because we didn’t have a choice.” Similarly, Dr. Touré noted that in his experience, regulation is less of a hurdle than the implementation of ICT policy. In fact, amid the crisis, Dr. Touré has embarked upon an ambitious ICT policy agenda in his new ministerial position. “The infrastructure is ready,” Dr. Touré emphasized. “Now, the private sector needs to step up funding to the digital ecosystem.” The pandemic crisis has, in many ways, set the stage for a flourishing digital ecosystem, specifically designed to meet local challenges head-on. In her opening remarks, Dr. Vera Songwe underlined the power of ICTs to accelerate progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Local problems require local (digital) solutions

In his opening remarks, Hon. Mbow highlighted the range of Internet access barriers facing people in The Gambia, from access to electricity to digital literacy. Speaking on a personal level, Hon. Mbow estimated that streaming and participating in the Zoom webinar would cost him upwards of USD$20, drawing attention to serious connectivity issues facing those even on the frontlines of ICT policy making in Africa: “there is a key difference between availability and affordability.” Building on this idea, Ms. Enonchong noted that due to the high data usage of platforms like Zoom, and given the high median price of data in Africa (estimates are currently around USD$7 for just 1GB), those connecting from Africa may additionally face steep financial barriers. To remedy infrastructural and institutional hurdles, African policymakers should “buy the tech that your own entrepreneurs are creating. When you start using that technology – for conferencing using less bandwidth – you can see the kinds of constraints they face” and encourage entrepreneurs to work around them. Mr. Quaynor’s remarks, focusing on the importance of digital literacy and taking advantage of digital opportunities, resonated strongly with this approach. “We need to pay attention to culture, heritage – and design more solutions that are uniquely African.”

Youth entrepreneurship is the key to thriving digital economies and future readiness

According to Dr. Lanvin, NRI data suggests that Africa’s unique strengths are its youth-heavy demographics and entrepreneurial excellence; “Africa needs to make full use of these key strengths, because digital transformation can be built on and around this advantage.” Ms. Magdaline reflected on the success of M-Pesa, a mobile payment platform launched in Kenya in 2007. “Favorable government policies, [digital] infrastructure and a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem are the key factors that made Kenya a leading digital economy.” To support youth entrepreneurship, Mr. Quaynor and Hon. Mbow emphasized that governments need to “overhaul” their approach to digital literacy and education. Hon. Mbow stressed that governments must invest in computer labs and adding digital literacy to core curricula. To Mr. Quaynor, current broadband capacities are insufficient for meaningful e-learning, and risk both deepening and creating new kinds of digital divides.

For ICT policy and implementation, policymakers must adopt an all-of-Africa approach

As the panel concluded, all the panelists agreed on the importance of regional cooperation for leveraging digital transformation in the post-COVID era. Drawing on her experiences as an entrepreneur in Kenya, Ms. Magdaline highlighted the power of “collaborating as one Africa: learning from each other, and international examples of success.” As an important first step, Dr. Songwe emphasized the importance of inclusive data, and approaching Africa as a deeply interconnected continent in international commentary. Without adopting an all-of-Africa approach to future readiness, we risk an unhealthy balance between fact-based insights and on-the-ground insights. “It’s one thing to talk about where we are,” Dr. Songwe declared, “and it’s another thing entirely to [produce policy that] take[s] us there.” Dr. Lanvin wholeheartedly agreed with this observation, noting that in his years of experience working in Africa, both for the UN and the World Bank, he could measure the unique value of working with people who are leading digital initiatives on the ground.