Africa’s Leading Lights: Regional Network Readiness for Digital Transformation

November 29, 2022

Raymond Onuoha, Portulans Institute Fellow


According to the Portulans Institute, publishers of the annual Network Readiness Index since 2019, network readiness is a multi-dimensional concept that assesses how technology and people are integrated within effective governance structures to create positive impacts on economies, society and the environment. A group of middle- and low-income economies stand out as performing above their expected levels of development in one or more of the structural categories comprising the four main pillars of the NRI [1]. Although at a different scale, this achievement highlights similarities in performance among these economies and others that are at higher stages of digital transformation and ranking tiers. These economies show a pillar score that is above their predicted performance given their income level [2]. Regionally, most of those countries that are exceeding expectations in at least one category are located in Africa, with 20 economies in total, outperforming in the categories of government, technology, and people. Table 1 shows the full list and further details about the identified outstanding pillar performers.

Table 1: Economies with outstanding pillar performance (Source: Network Readiness Index 2022)

While digital acceleration has been underway in Africa since the beginning of the last decade, significant divides persist, creating barriers to a holistic digital transformation of the continent. About 80% of its almost 1.5 billion people are still unconnected to the Internet, while affordability remains a challenge for the connected few. To bridge this deficit, the African Union adopted the Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020–2030) in alignment with the Agenda 2063 for Africa and the Sustainable Development Goals, which aims to transform member countries’ economies and promote their integration by stimulating inclusive growth using digital technologies and innovation. 

Foundational to the above objectives is network infrastructure connectivity and access, upon which higher-order digital ecosystem values can be realized. Within network infrastructure as a fundamental readiness parameter, the reliability and security of the network is critical for ubiquitous adoption and usage. This blogpost assesses these critical indicators for Africa in the recently released Network Readiness Index 2022, highlighting the strongest performers on the continent and the best practices they have implemented in achieving their performance, as reflection points for other countries across the region for realizing the opportunities of digital transformation.


Network Access and Speed

Meaningful connectivity is underpinned by a complementarity of both network access and speed of connectivity. These critical parameters are assessed for Africa in the Network Readiness Index 2022, under the indicators for (1) International internet bandwidth, and (2) Population covered by at least 3G mobile network.

Best Practices – International internet bandwidth in Africa | Kenya

Figure 1: International internet bandwidth – Regional Performance for Africa (NRI 2022 Ranking)

The chart above (Figure 1) highlights an exceptional performance by Kenya in the Africa region with respect to internet bandwidth, ranking in the top 10 (8th) globally on the international internet bandwidth indicator as a measure of access within the Technology pillar of NRI 2022. As a best practice champion, the availability of affordable, accessible, resilient and reliable infrastructure is the central pillar of the Kenya Digital Economy Blueprint (Figure 2).


Figure 2: Foundational Pillars of the Kenya Digital Economy Blueprint

Within this focus, Kenya has made great strides in broadband coverage (both fixed and mobile), and more importantly, has invested over 200 million USD in a National Optic Fiber Backbone Infrastructure (NOFBI) that spans over 9,000 Km and touches all the 47 counties that make up the country terrestrially. This maximizes the broadband capacity of the country’s various subsea optical fiber infrastructure, including the East African Marine System (TEAMS), SEACOM, East African Submarine Cable System (EASsy), Djibouti Africa Regional Express 1 (DARE 1), Pakistan and East Africa Connecting Europe (PEACE) cable, and Lower Indian Ocean NetWork II (LION II). More so, the Kenyan digital ecosystem thrives on a functioning Universal Service Fund (USF) investment pool from the private sector that have catalyzed the growth of broadband in the country. Other complementary critical broadband infrastructure include two national exchange points (KIXPs) operated by the Technology Service Providers Of Kenya (TESPOK) for carrying international, regional and local traffic, where different broadband connectivity operators exchange data traffic. Kenya has also established regional points-of-presence (PoPs) infrastructure linking the country to both the national fiber-optic networks of Tanzania and Southern Sudan.


Best Practices – Population covered by at least 3G mobile network | South Africa 

Figure 3: Population covered by at least 3G mobile network – Regional Performance for Africa (NRI 2022 Ranking)

As depicted in Figure 3, South Africa is the strongest performer with respect to the population covered by at least 3G mobile network indicator on the Network Readiness Index 2022, ranking 37th. The South African National Development Plan 2030 emphasizes a digital transformation framework that leverages “…a widespread broadband communication system [that] will underpin a dynamic and connected vibrant information society and a knowledge economy that is more inclusive, equitable and prosperous.” A critical regulatory formulation by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) was the promulgation of the spectrum trading policy and the ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ spectrum assignment principle that enabled more efficient use of spectrum for the rapid deployment of new generation broadband infrastructure. This mechanism has significantly contributed to a near 100 percent 3G broadband coverage within the country (Figure 4).


Figure 4: National Population Coverage of 3G and 4G in South Africa. (South Africa Digital Economy Diagnostic (2019))


Network Security and Governance

Network security is a key trust indicator for digital access and connectivity. In this reference, cybersecurity is critical for engendering a trusted and sustainable digital transformation. For an optimally secure digital network, the right regulatory framework that minimizes the emergence and manifestation of negative impacts for both market players and consumers is fundamental.

Best Practices – Cybersecurity | Mauritius   

Figure 5: Cybersecurity – Regional Performance for Africa (NRI 2022 Ranking)

Mauritius ranks highest in Africa on the cybersecurity parameter for NRI 2022, ranking 23rd (Figure 5). It is one of the few countries in Africa to have enacted a dedicated cybersecurity law – the Computer Misuse and Cybercrime Act 2003, which enforces criminal offenses relating to cybercrime and the related rules for investigations and procedures. Mauritius was the first African country to both accede without reservation the ratification of the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime in 2013 and the African Union Convention On Cyber Security And Personal Data Protection (Malabo Convention) in 2018. 

Mauritius is also the only African country on both the Global Forum of Cyber Expertise (GFCE) and the UN Group of Governmental Experts on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security. More broadly, cybersecurity and cybercrime comprise the fourth strategic pillar of the country’s Digital Mauritius 2030 Strategic Plan, which consists an active National Cyber Threat Center (comprising a Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-MU), Computer Incident Response Team (CIRT), and a Cyber Security Awareness Portal) that issues guidelines on safe cybersecurity practices within the country, and for promoting cybersecurity services across the Southern Africa region via the auspices of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Mauritius has championed sub-regional cybersecurity capacity building efforts – including training programs and workshops – directed towards strengthening institutions in regard to cybersecurity policy reforms. These ongoing trainings have been conducted in collaboration with policy institutions in more mature digital ecosystems such as The Council of Europe (through the Global Action on Cybercrime (GLACY)) and the European Union (EU) via the Northern Ireland Cooperation Overseas (NI-CO), the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the US Department of State (in collaboration with the African Union Commission (AUC), the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (which has funded the Cybersecurity Capacity Centre for Southern Africa (C3SA)), with technical support from multilateral digital institutions such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).


Best Practices – ICT Regulatory Environment in Africa | Kenya   

Figure 6: ICT Regulatory Environment – Regional Performance for Africa (NRI 2022 Ranking)

Kenya is the most advanced ICT regulatory environment in Africa in the NRI 2022 (Figure 6). Recognized as the ‘Silicon Savannah’, progressive regulatory policies in its technology ecosystem have boosted broadband uptake in the country, as well as the global success of innovative digital transformations such as the M-PESA – the world’s largest mobile-money system. As a departure from the traditional mechanisms of economic planning, the two underpinning frameworks for Kenya’s ICT ecosystem – The Kenya National Digital Master Plan 2022-2032 and The Digital Economy Blueprint both depart from being just vision and goals driven, to incorporating an analysis of barriers and limitations for realizing the objectives of the strategic documents in a globally competitive technology environment. Both policy documents are also well aligned to the broader National Development Plan (NDP) – Kenya’s Vision 2030, with implementation plans covering short-term and long term activities for meeting the objectives of NDP. More specifically, the National Digital Master Plan has data protection and cyber security as critical pillars of ecosystem engagement, with clear governance structure and rules for effective cyber cooperation. With respect to global ICT regulatory benchmarking, Kenya is the only African country in the lead group of G5 regulators on the ITU Global ICT Regulatory Outlook, entering the global top 10 for the first time in 8th position.


Inclusive adoption and usage

For Africa, there are still severe structural impediments to an inclusive digital transformation of the region. While these constraints differ significantly from country to country, they are generally underpinned by factors such as population size and density, level of urbanization, economic development, and gender, which all often correlate to the level of access to digital resources. ICT adoption, and in particular internet usage, has therefore varied across the African region from more than 60 percent in the more developed economies to less than 10 percent in the region’s least developed economies. There still persist a gender divide with respect to internet access of about 24 percent in contrast to a global average of only 8 percent. As a whole, Africa still has the least affordable prices for ICT access in the world.

Best Practices – Inclusion | Mauritius

Figure 7: Inclusion – Regional Performance for Africa (NRI 2022 Ranking)

Mauritius is Africa’s best performer in the Inclusion sub-pillar      in      NRI 2022 (Figure 7). Historically, the country – regarded globally as a welfarist state –  is one of the few jurisdictions from the Global South with a relatively high level of social spending, devoting more than half of its budget to universal social protection policies across the sectors of its economy. In adapting to digital globalization, Mauritius has balanced a developmental industrial growth strategy with distributional equity imperatives. The mantra of the country’s industrial strategy is: “No government can survive in an election, and no industrial strategy can succeed, unless the benefits of growth are seen to be shared.” In its pursuit to transform the country to a ‘Cyber Island’ underpinned by mega ICT projects such as the Ebene Cyber-City, the country had undertaken various programs to augment computer literacy and understanding of ICT among all Mauritians, and facilitated the scaling of local ICT start-up companies. Mauritius is also the only African country that meets the UN Broadband Commission target of 2 percent of GNI per capita for both mobile and fixed broadband access. 


Future perspectives and recommendations

Africa’s readiness to leverage technology for digital transformation is well underway, championed by the leading lights on the continent that have been highlighted in this blog post. Overall, the continent’s  top three performers on the recently released Network Readiness Index (NRI) 2022 included – South Africa, Mauritius, and Kenya. While the achievements of these select few countries on the continent are celebratory, a lot more still needs to be done across the continent with respect to network readiness, more so, learning from the best practices highlighted, to deliver an inclusive digital transformation for Africa that will enable wider spread socio-economic development. 

A key takeaway from the outlook of the continent’s best performers in the NRI 2022 is that network readiness for digital transformation needs to be system-wide, as the underpinning indicators are very well interrelated. As seen from the assessments above, the best performing countries in the region typically do well in multiple dimensions. Kenya, for example, leads in both international internet bandwidth and ICT regulatory environment, while Mauritius on the other hand, leads on both cybersecurity and inclusion. So rather than just focusing on a single network readiness parameter, the importance of adopting a multi-dimensional approach to bridging digital deficits is highly recommended.

Overall, critical areas for digital policy scaling across the continent will include:

  • Increased investment in high speed digital infrastructure for ubiquitous access and quality of service.
  • Developing and effectively implementing optimal cybersecurity strategies to improve confidence and trust in the use of digital infrastructure and systems.
  • Developing a digitally savvy citizenry that will catalyze digital adoption and usage for building out robust digital economies and competitive markets.
  • Reforming digital policy and regulation to engender inclusion via increased social spending focus, and leveraging institutional mechanisms such as appropriate and active universal service funds, and community network access models for unserved and underserved communities.


[1] The four main structural categories of the NRI comprise each of its pillars: technology, people, governance, and impact.

[2]  An economy is identified as displaying outstanding performance when its pillar score is at least 10% above the trendline that is generated across all economies for that particular pillar. Trendlines are produced for each pillar by estimating a linear model to describe the relationship between pillar scores and GDP per capita.

Raymond Onuoha is a Technology Policy Fellow at the Lagos Business School (LBS) Nigeria, where his research focuses on the institutional and policy challenges in the evolution of the digital economy and technology innovation in developing countries, with a special focus on sub-Sahara Africa. His consulting expertise covers the domain areas of digital transformation and innovation, Internet governance and standardization, and telecommunications policy. He also works as a Research Consultant with regional ICT policy and regulation think-tanks – Research ICT Africa (RIA), South Africa and IT4Change (Canada) – conducting  multidisciplinary research on digital governance, policy and regulation and the facilitation of evidence-base to inform policy making for improved access, use and application of digital technologies for social and economic development in Africa.

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