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Public-private collaboration is key to building Africa’s digital future

Robert Kayihura
By Robert Kayihura

Robert Kayihura is a senior advisor in Covington's Africa practice, based in Johannesburg, and leads the firm’s technology, public policy and global problem solving practice on the continent.

Posted on Thursday, 4 July 2019 14:38

An illustration photo shows the Facebook page displayed on a mobile phone internet browser held in front of a computer screen at a cyber-cafe in downtown Nairobi, Kenya April 18, 2019. Reuters/Stringer

Close collaboration between policy-makers and the private sector is the key to ensure increased connectivity and improved cybersecurity.

Over the past four decades of personal computing and the internet revolution, three key barriers prevented most Africans from benefitting from the technological innovations and services that have changed the world.

  • First, a failure of leadership led to the mismanagement of billions of dollars that should have built the healthcare, education, and other infrastructure and services critical to development.
  • Second, Africa’s 54 countries have had highly fragmented trade regimes and weak distribution channels that made the continent an unattractive place to invest in and do business with.
  • Third, the historically prohibitive cost of access to information technology meant that during the first 40 years of the ICT revolution, only the most privileged entrepreneurs could afford the on-premise hardware, networking, and other capabilities required to build a technology-enabled business.

Even after cloud computing substantially reduced the cost of access to world-class IT infrastructure and services, access to the internet was still out of reach for most Africans. These historical barriers, among others, perpetuate the false impression that Africa is irredeemable.

The building blocks of a new and promising era for Africa

The ratification of the African Continental Free Trade Area, which creates a single market of more than 1.3 billion African consumers, demonstrates a shared vision by African leaders on a complex policy initiative built on free market principles.

  • This initiative seeks to increase intra-African exports from a current average of 18%, to levels comparable to the 59% and 69% for intra-Asia and intra-Europe exports, respectively. As Africa builds a more interconnected and prosperous continent through trade, affordable access to modern technology will play a central role in empowering our young people in manufacturing, processing, and the creation of value chains across all sectors.

The continent’s internet penetration is now at 36%, compared to the rest of the world’s average of 56%. While still low, this is a remarkable accomplishment considering it was achieved in the past ten years. The African Union, with support from the World Bank Group, has set the goal of connecting every individual, business, and government in Africa by 2030, effectively lowering broadband cost by as much as 90%.

As the world’s fastest-growing mobile region, GSMA, which represents the interests of mobile operators globally, estimates that Africa will reach 650 million unique mobile subscribers in the next five years. The mobile ecosystem alone is expected to add more than US$150bn in value to the continent’s economy by 2022.

Increased connectivity and access to the cloud through mobile phones and other edge devices will lead to infinite sources of information, analytics and expertise that enable African entrepreneurs to envision and shape a new and tech-driven reality. As a result of these positive developments, governments and businesses from all around the world are rushing to strengthen diplomatic and commercial ties with Africa.

The pursuit of new opportunities on the continent is amplified by the fact that leading platform companies are making huge investments to accelerate Africa’s digital transformation and the adoption of advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning — all readily available through the cloud at a fraction of the initial cost of information technology.

The threat of cybercrime to Africa’s transformation

Cloud-based technologies and services are unrivaled in their ability to offer integrated storage and computing capabilities at economies of scale that substantially increase productivity, while lowering historically high capital and production costs. But, as we’ve learned with the alarming increase of cyberattacks, the more powerful the tool, the greater its potential to benefit or harm society.

Over 77% of the cyber attacks launched in 2018 were successful, leading to trillions of dollars in economic losses suffered by civilians, companies, and governments. We’ve also seen that these advanced technologies can be misused by terrorists, companies, and governments intent on suppressing fundamental rights like privacy and freedom of expression.

The rising threat of cybercrime is galvanizing many of our clients in Africa to strengthen public-private collaboration on the development of enabling and harmonized regulations that affirm international norms on privacy, cybersecurity, and other critical policies and regulations “aimed at promoting an open, secure, accessible and peaceful ICT environment”.

Public-Private partnerships for harmonized and enabling policies and regulations

Technology adoption is at the heart of Africa’s socio-economic transformation agenda at the African Union and other important forums like the Smart Africa Alliance, where 24 African Heads of State, with the support of a highly capable Secretariat, are providing critical leadership to accelerate development through ICT. The most effective way to ensure sustained transformation is to create ecosystems of excellence that are governed by harmonized legal and regulatory frameworks that adhere to well-established global standards.

Bottom line: Given the rapidly evolving capabilities of new and advanced technologies, close collaboration between policy makers and the private sector is the key to striking the right balance between creating the conditions required to attract foreign direct investment, spur locally-lead innovation, and the protection of individual liberties, while helping governments obtain the electronic evidence they need to protect their citizens from digital crime and terrorism.

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