As Africa’s leaders gather for the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town, one of the most important discussions will be about the impact of technology on the continent’s socio-economic development, and the investments needed to further technological growth.

The continent is outgrowing and outperforming many other global regions. It is also setting out on a new path to improve the lives and prospects of its citizens by transforming education, healthcare, job creation and societal stability.

At the heart of any such achievement must be digital transformation and education.

Digitization – forming new connections and connecting the unconnected via the internet – demands high-speed, high-quality and affordable broadband, both wired and wireless. The connection of cities, communities, businesses and even entire countries to what we refer to as the Internet of Everything (IoE) is the best way to expedite growth; it will drive job creation, open up education to more people, improve health, advance welfare and fuel innovation.

In an effectively digitized country, where everyday assets are connected into the IoE, energy can be saved by equipping street lights with intelligent sensors so they can be dimmed or brightened based on motion. A development like this could have a huge positive effect in sub-Saharan Africa, where the inability to regulate and distribute power often leads to rolling blackouts (currently an accepted part of daily life).

Digital connections can also improve healthcare by connecting rural patients with chronic diseases to doctors, without requiring the sick to leave their homes or travel long distances to be seen by a clinician. Meanwhile, education can be delivered to the most underserved communities through smart, connected devices, removing the need for teachers or institutions to travel hundreds of miles to deliver education. Today, and increasingly in the future, education will be available online – quite literally at the touch of a button.

The drivers for prioritizing a digitization strategy are clear, and it is vital that we accelerate this transition in Africa – where, today, internet penetration remains at just 26%.

Africa has a big advantage too. Many cities across the continent do not suffer from the crippling costs associated with the maintenance of legacy infrastructure and systems, which have held back the progress of more developed nations. This gives them an opportunity to leap past their international peers.

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For example, many African cities have been able to bypass fixed-line phone networks and go straight to mobile and wireless services. Today, Africa boasts the fastest mobile subscriber growth in the world, with the average subscription rate at 72% and expected to reach 97% by 2017. Indeed, mobile surge is one of the key factors affecting the growth of economic activity – and GDP. And increased foreign investment in Africa makes it likely that further major leaps forward will happen in key African technology centres.

These are all reasons why Cisco will be urging leaders at the meeting to prioritize technological advancement and investments in broadband infrastructure as a foundation for all other transformation plans. Africa’s progress is in its governments’ hands: it is they who are able to shape the policies and regulations that will drive broadband roll-out and foster skills development.

Embracing the new technologies required to fully digitize a country takes imagination and investment. It also requires specialist expertise – in digital technologies, cloud-based infrastructure and applications provision, mobile access, security and information analytics.

Within five years, half the working population on the African continent will be under 25. This presents a chance for public- and private-sector organizations to work together to create new job opportunities for this new generation ‒ jobs that will simultaneously deliver the scale of advances the continent needs.

Filling the skills gap demands the integration of more technology training into each country’s mainstream educational curriculum. National governments can have a positive influence here too, by deploying policy and training programmes to help solve the gap in networking professionals.

Companies like Cisco must play their part. We now have Cisco Networking Academies in 47 African countries: last year 810 of these institutions taught over 92,574 students (of which 32% were female) to design, build and maintain networks, equipping them with the skills needed to make a difference in their country’s digital infrastructure projects.

Digital transformation must be an integral part of Africa’s strategy for growth; everything else will flow from this. So, at the meeting in Cape Town, we call on leaders to work together to create a stronger, faster and more dynamic digital Africa.

The World Economic Forum on Africa 2015 takes place in Cape Town, South Africa from 3-5 June. 

Author: David Meads, President, Cisco Africa

Image: Eye patients wait in the background as a Smartphone apparatus is seen for eye examinations at a temporary clinic by International Centre for Eye Health at Olenguruone in the Mau Summit 350km (217 miles) west of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, October 29, 2013. REUTERS/Noor Khamis