Picture: 123RF/RA2 STUDIO
Picture: 123RF/RA2 STUDIO

Africa’s role in the development of the global digital economy requires bold decisions if the continent is to influence global affairs, the global economy and the global imagination. This was the vision of economic change outlined in The Economist’s May special report on “The African Century”.

The continent should drive its regulators to become enablers and move to change the laws to allow for the future digital economy, based on aspects such as mobility in vehicles, drones, smart grids, and cloud computing.

The critical elements required to ensure the digital revolution is transformational are:

  • The regulatory infrastructure must keep pace with technology;
  • Digital transformation must close the historic, and widening, gender gap; and
  • Physical infrastructure must be in place.

The regulatory infrastructure is fragmented — as in SA — or nonexistent, as it is across most of the continent, though there are moves to tackle this. Regulatory frameworks for governance and regulation of technology businesses must focus on facilitating adoption (including licensing and registration) and operate at a national and continental level. It should also balance public security concerns with the need to encourage innovation, economic development and youth entrepreneurship.

There is an enormous digital divide. About half of the world’s population have no access to the internet, and most of those are women in developing countries. The future is online, but more than 250-million fewer women than men have access to the internet, a critical requirement for social and economic participation, and so are excluded.

This digital divide refers not only to the unequal access to information communication technologies (ICTs) but also the use of ICTs by those on the socioeconomic margins. The accessibility, availability and affordability of everything from mobile phones to payphones and the internet — key components of digital transformation — depend on government policy and regulatory environments.

Closed sets

A World Wide Web Foundation report, “Is Open Data Working for Women in Africa?”, revealed “a closed data culture in Africa”, legislation and practices that are not gender-responsive, and gender equality legislation that fails to deal with such inequalities.

The report claims sex-segregated data sets on budget, health and crime are unavailable and that in Sub-Saharan Africa 373 out of 375 data sets are closed. Such data sets are needed to support the advocacy objectives of women.

The AU reportDrones on the Horizon: Transforming Africa’s Agriculture” calls for agritech to transform farming across the continent, yet only 14 out of 54 African countries have drone regulations in place, many of which are obstructive, even banning civilians from operating them.

Aretha Mare, co-founder of Impact Hub Harare in Zimbabwe was quoted as saying many legislators and parliamentarians don’t have a grasp of what digital technology is, or what the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is all about. She suggests a training programme for legislators would “help a great deal in shaping the policy process”. 

Initiatives are in place at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, which runs an ICT training programme for regulators, policymakers, and parliamentarians.

Combating cybercrime is also a regulatory priority as few African countries — apart from SA — possess the legal and institutional structure to take it on. The signing of an agreement for the African Continental Free-Trade Area (AfCFTA) offers the continent an opportunity to align regulations, policies and procedures regarding the 4IR and accelerate participation in global value chains.

In 2019 President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the new department of communications & digital technologies, formed through a merger of the departments of communications and telecommunications & postal services. The department’s mission is to lead the “digital transformation journey through creating an enabling environment towards a digital society to foster socioeconomic growth”.  This task requires greater collaboration to align and update governance systems and the regulatory environment. Hopefully, the signing of the AfCFTA agreement will hasten such collaboration.

With the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic the government has launched a strategic infrastructure project programme to the value of R360bn. In the digital sector a R4bn investment will be made in a space infrastructure hub to develop satellite infrastructure, satellite-based augmentation systems and earth observation satellites.

As The Economist reported, progress is not inevitable, nor will it be evenly spread. But it also added that Africans overall are optimistic about the long-term future. Its younger generation just needs the tools to make that hope a reality.

• Lowe is MD of FTI Consulting.

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