A whole new (digital) world

Three ways West Africa’s digitalisation can improve

By Alain Faujas

Posted on January 28, 2021 09:14

 Students in an artificial intelligence course at the Digital Center Institute in Accra, Ghana. © Sven Torfinn/PANOS/REA
Students in an artificial intelligence course at the Digital Center Institute in Accra, Ghana. © Sven Torfinn/PANOS/REA

According to a report by the African Union and the OECD, a shift to digitalisation is essential for successful development in West Africa.

The Covid-19 pandemic has provided a strong incentive to the African Union (AU) and the EU to push the continent to accelerate its digital shift by implementing remote learning, retail and production.

On 19 January, the AU’s Department of Economic Affairs and the OECD published a report on the dynamics of development in Africa entitled Transformation digitale et qualité de l’emploi (Digital transformation and job quality) which served as a strong plea to develop Africa’s digital economy.

The report argues that productivity gains and the added value of digital technology are essential for the successful implementation of “Agenda 2063” to transform Africa into the global powerhouse of the future, and provide tens of millions of young people entering the labour market with stable and gainful employment. Digital transformation improves corporate governance and, most importantly, increases their profits by an average of 20%.

Barriers to digitalisation

Africa is not starting from scratch: 640 technological hubs have already flourished there and 500 companies offer digital financing services. One of the chapters of the report devoted to West Africa highlights its strengths and weaknesses, which are representative of the continent as a whole in terms of digitalisation.

READ MORE Three ways Africa’s digital economy can improve in 2021

West Africa has 142 technopoles, such as the Information Technology and Biotechnology Village in Côte d’Ivoire. Incubators such as Jokkolabs (Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, The Gambia) also provide support to locally based start-ups.

Nollywood in Nigeria has become the world’s second largest film industry after Bollywood. The reason for its success? Nearly 90% of its $3bn in revenue is generated through the Internet.

However, the statistics confirm the obstacles preventing digitalisation from taking off in West Africa. More than half of college-educated young people in Africa do not have the skills required to work in the digital world.

Less than 5% of households own a computer, while only 41.5% of the population has access to a mobile network. Barely 24% of its businesses have a website. E-commerce also faces logistical challenges: according to the Boston Consulting Group, between 30% and 40% of products ordered over the Internet are returned because the recipient cannot be found.

Training, connecting, investing, protecting

Three recommendations emerge from the report. The first concerns training. The education system should direct more pupils towards scientific and technical subjects. Moreover, distance learning is a good tool for giving pupils in rural areas a taste for digital technology.

Additionally, it is also essential to establish links between general and technical education. Based on the model created in Côte d’Ivoire, a school-enterprise partnership would make it possible to define and disseminate the skills required in the courses being digitised.

The second recommendation is just as fundamental as it focuses on electricity, essential for digital products. To provide electricity to the 48% of West Africans who do not have it, the report proposes adopting a project like the Akon Light project, which brings solar electricity to millions of people. It suggests limiting production and distribution monopolies by liberalising the energy sector, as Nigeria has done profitably.

READ MORE Nigeria: Gas/solar diversification needed to escape power shortages

The third piece of advice is “to invest massively in communication infrastructure.” Providing 4G coverage to the whole region by 2025 will cost $3.1bn.

Finally, “greater deployment of terrestrial fibre optic infrastructure, including Internet exchange points and data centres, as well as submarine cables, remains an important lever for reducing the digital divide.”

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It will also be important to ensure digital security against cybercrime throughout the region. So far, only Benin, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal and Gambia have adopted legislation protecting the entire sector, namely electronic transactions, consumers, data exchange and privacy.

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