Written by Dr. Vera Songwe, Under Secretary General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa
Dr. Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary, UN Economic Commission for Africa. / Image supplied
It is widely recognized that digitalization is one of the most powerful tools for implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Africa’s Agenda 2063.
Digital applications are already driving socio-economic transformation, increasing efficient production and distribution of goods and services, opening-up new opportunities for income generation for millions of poor people, enhancing connectivity between people, societies, government, and organizations.
In the last fifteen years, the growth of digital technology, mainly driven by the mobile revolution and associated innovations has been one of the bright spots for Africa’s development. This progress has also raised hope that we can truly accelerate the implementation of the SDGs.
Today, more than 80 per cent of Africa’s population has a mobile phone subscription. In several African countries, the digital economy is becoming one of the main drivers of growth, accounting for more than 5 per cent of GDP.
New and emerging mobile-enabled platforms across the region partly stimulated by the exponential growth of mobile telephony have disrupted traditional value chains in different sectors of the economy across the region.
Similarly, digital trade is rapidly growing, and Fintech services have become a powerful lever for growth and financial inclusion by providing large numbers of services to people excluded from basic financial services. With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, digital technology has become an important tool more than at any other time before to facilitate and enable work, business and life across the continent.
However, Africa is still the least connected region compared to other regions of the world with about 28,2 per cent internet coverage and 34 per cent to mobile broadband. Few citizens have digital IDs, businesses adopting digital technologies remain the exception rather than the norm, and few governments are investing strategically in developing digital infrastructure, services, skills, and entrepreneurship.
There is also a need to adapt and harmonize legislations on technology, including intellectual property and data privacy, to truly unleash Africa’s digital potential.
To tackle these challenges, ECA, through its Centre of Excellence for Digital Identity, Trade and Economy, established in 2018, is providing the necessary support to Member States to use digitalization, as catalyst for inclusive and sustainable growth in Africa, contributing significantly to the attainment of the sustainable development goals (SDGs).
Together with the African Union Commission, we have developed and started to implement the African Union’s Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020–2030) as a blueprint and master plan for transforming the continent’s economy and societies.
ECA in collaboration with the World Bank and others UN System Agencies is also undertaking country level engagement to support the design and implementation of digital ID programmes, including exploiting linkages with the broader digital economy for achieving SDGs.
Over 60 per cent of men and 75 per cent of women are engaged in informal economic activity in Africa and providing support to this majority has challenged all African Governments in this era of COVID19. The ‘digital identity’ goal for all of Africa can help to ensure that development touches everyone and that no one is left behind.
ECA has also sought to ensure that African countries can leverage the digital space to respond to the COVID19 crisis more quickly and robustly.
ECA, in collaboration with several telecommunications companies operating on the continent (MTN, Orange, Airtel, Vodafone, etc.) has developed and launched an Africa-wide COVID-19 digital platform to support member States to enhance their ability to analyse the situation, implement the necessary responses, and direct resources to mitigate and curb the health and economic impacts of the pandemic.
Digitalisation is also a critical component to unlock the full potential of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Reinforcing the capacity of African firms and entrepreneurs to trade easily within Africa’s borders and reach a global marketplace requires significant progress in Africa’s digital infrastructure, as well as a focus on regulations that protect and enhance digital trade.
Investments in digitalisation can also be developed through public private partnerships, recognising the multiplier downstream benefits that this investment will bring. Digitalisation, leveraging the AfCFTA, can be a tool for reducing inequality significantly, as it can facilitate reaching even the most marginalised and vulnerable.
Finally, our ability to convene and unite around common causes is ever more necessary – even if the reality of the pandemic makes it hard to do so. ECA has aimed to increase spaces for exchange and promotion of knowledge through multi-stakeholder platforms and a series of regional meetings.
ECA has held its annual Africa World Summit on Information Society Regional Review as a key forum for positioning ICTs as a means of implementation of the SDGs, and this has directly contributed to the agenda of the High Level Political Forum for follow-up and review of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development.
The latter has included the Africa Science Technology and Innovation Forum, an initiative of the ECA, designed to support member States to leverage science, technology and innovation (STI) for accelerating the implementation of the SDGs.
We have used this forum to also build capacity among young people of our continent, by bringing them together in the format of bootcamps to introduce them to opportunities for design and innovation, and to harness the entrepreneurial opportunities associated with digitalisation.
By giving these tools to our young people we are equipping ourselves for sustainability and ensuring that we can emerge stronger and more resilient from the global shock of this pandemic.