Africa is undoubtedly the region with the most to gain from the current digital revolution. Progressing towards a digital economy is a critical step in the continent’s path to sustainable development. A recent panel discussion hosted by the World Bank Group as part of the Spring Meetings series looked at the challenges and opportunities presented as Africa tackles issues with infrastructure, regulation and capital.
Led by World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, the panel included voices from around Africa who represented governments, NGOs and private sector organisations. The takeaways of the discussion were clear: Africa is full of potential and ready to build their digital economy, however, the development of infrastructure and reform of restrictive policy will be critical to this development.
Demographics is a critical factor: 60 percent of the African population is less than 30 years old. This young and vibrant population is highly motivated, ambitious and eager to affect change. There is a strong spirit of entrepreneurship as well as a huge market of young consumers. Seni Sulyman, Vice President of Global Operations for Andela, highlighted the need to empower youth to change Africa. He noted that technology and software developments are difficult to catch up with and the risk of mass resettlement of the young population in search of better opportunities was high if Africa is not actively involved in developing these sectors, the consequences of which would be dire for the continent.
Investing in and adopting new technologies is pegged as the best way for African countries to ‘leapfrog’ traditional development, extend access to services and sustainably manage resources. According to Tony Elumelu, philanthropist and entrepreneur, investing in new forms of digital education and shifting towards enabling policy rather than stifling regulation remain the first steps to affecting lasting, positive change.
Widespread digital connectivity issues in Africa remain a barrier to progress. Omobola Johnson, of the Alliance for Affordable Internet, insists that the main roadblocks are the physical challenges such as basic infrastructure. During the roundtable, Johnson stressed the importance of focussing on access to low cost and reliable internet and what that could do for the development of the continent.
While the digital economy in Africa has a long road to development ahead, there is a clear potential and desire for change. Nearly two billion people worldwide don’t use a mobile phone, half a billion of which live in areas without connection. Most of these people live in Africa. This remains the greatest inhibiting factor in unleashing the potential that exists in Africa.