Knowledge-intensive services show resilience and promise in Africa

18 Nov 2022

On African Statistics Day, UNCTAD presents data showing growth in the continent’s exports of services like computer and telecommunications services – and why collecting and analyzing such statistics is key for better policymaking.


Like elsewhere, Africa’s services exports took a nosedive during the COVID-19 pandemic. International travel and related services, such as hotels and tour operators, have traditionally driven the continent’s services exports. So as the pandemic restricted travel and tourism, Africa’s total services exports fell by one third in 2020, dropping to levels last seen in 2009.

Despite improvements in 2021, overall services exports from African countries remained 20% lower than in 2019. But the overall figure hides the resilience shown during and after the pandemic by particular activities within the sector: knowledge-intensive services.

These include for instance insurance and pension services, financial services, telecommunications, computer and information services, research and development, management consulting and other business services, as well as personal, cultural and recreational services.

Africa’s exports of such services continued to grow during the pandemic, overtaking first transport and then travel. Globally, Africa was the region where these exports grew strongest in 2021, increasing by 17.3% compared with 16.5% in Asia, 14.2% in Latin America and the Caribbean and in Europe, and 11.2% in Northern America.

Yet Africa remains a small player globally, with a share of just 0.9% of world exports of knowledge-intensive services. Europe accounts for over half of these global exports, followed by Asia (25%) and Northern America (18%).

And the continent-wide average hides big gaps among countries. For example, Ghana exported over $7 billion worth of knowledge-intensive services, while almost half of the continent’s 54 countries were below $100 million. Among the sub-regions, Northern Africa led with $11.8 billion in exports, followed by Western Africa with $10 billion.

Why services statistics are important for Africa 

Every 18 November the continent marks African Statistics Day to raise awareness on the importance of statistics in all aspects of social and economic life.

Collecting and analysing data on services exports is critical because services – from insurance to telecommunications to travel and logistics facilitate all other economic activities. They provide immense opportunities for African countries to diversify their economies away from the export of raw materials and create more and better jobs. 

Although globally goods exports are still worth more than services – $22.3 trillion compared with $6.1 trillion in 2021 – the value of services exports has grown much faster.  Over the past decade.  world exports of services have soared by 35.7% – almost 14 percentage points faster than those of goods.

Africa is not fully tapping this potential. In 2019, the continent’s services exports accounted for 20.8% of the total African exports of both goods and services. This fell to 15.6% in 2021 due to the pandemic.

UNCTAD’s Economic Development in Africa Report explores in detail the potential that business and financial services hold for the continent. And its Creative Economy Outlook 2022 provides data and analysis for knowledge-related services related to the creative industries, such as music and film.

Building statistics capacity on the continent

Better data allows for better policymaking. And while many African countries have developed their trade in services statistics, big gaps remain.

To help bridge these gaps, UNCTAD has developed a trade in services information system (TISSTAT) in collaboration with the West African Economic and Monetary Union and their member states.

In November 2022, eight Western African countries – Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo – started using the system, which introduces a modern online data collection and compilation system to helps countries provide more comprehensive and timely statistics on trade in services.