I love mathematics. No wonder then my academic and professional forays in finance and economics. The Fourth Industrial Revolution today presents unprecedented opportunities to accelerate progress in addressing Africa’s growth and development challenges. Unlike the previous industrial revolutions, this one is embedded in intelligence rather than brute mechanical strength. For a region that is blessed with an abundance of youthful talent – and yet still lacks many trappings of earlier revolutions, such as well-developed road or rail networks – this should be seen as an opportunity. Unfortunately, Africa trails behind the rest of the world in terms of talent – not enough researchers, not enough patents, not enough tech businesses. Overcoming this is eminently achievable, if a stiff challenge, but only if we get better at connecting more Africans – and women and girls in particular – to technology.
The overarching theme of the forthcoming World Economic Forum on Africa that will be held in Kigali, Rwanda in May 2016 is Connecting Africa’s Resources through Digital Transformation. It’s an ambitious theme that we hope will in one stroke build on the narrative generated at our Annual Meeting in Davos this year on the Fourth Industrial Revolution by providing some much sought after African context. At the same time, we hope it will help refocus Africa’s growth agenda around its most valuable resource of all: its people.
For this to happen, three critical areas for digital transformation must be considered: digital access, literacy and entrepreneurship.
In terms of access, about 4 billion people globally are not connected to the internet. Under the Forum’s Global Challenge on the Future of the Internet, we are seeking to expand internet access, with a particular interest in connecting the last billion rather than the next billion. This initiative calls for new business models that can help us connect rural and marginalized communities, while addressing challenges related to infrastructure, affordability, local content and skills development.
At the forthcoming meeting in Africa, we’ll focus on bringing to life digital solutions and address the opportunities to scale in three main areas.
One, in the area of access, an innovative initiative to launch non-commercial satellites into space with the help of school girls is being pioneered by MEDO in Cape Town, South Africa. This inspiring initiative and others like it will go a long way towards renewing interest in STEM training among teenage school girls: literally helping them understand that the sky is the limit. It is estimated that only one in six African graduates across the continent are in STEM and that the continent has a gap of about 1,000,000 researchers based on international best practice.
Two, in the area of literacy there is remarkable progress in the development of cashless societies beyond m-pesa from Kenya. Take for example Somalia, where the goal is safety, or Rwanda, where the goal is convenience, or Tanzania, where the goal is banking the unbanked. Whatever the original purpose, preliminary evidence shows that ditching cash for mobile money boosts sales for informal traders and empowers women.
Three, in the area of entrepreneurship, the United Nations International Trade Centre has paved the way in developing national ecosystems for ecommerce, starting with Morocco.Made in Africa holds immense economic opportunities for Africa’s youth and could help monetize creative talent, building on the ongoing success of the fashionomics industry globally. Platforms like these that help African creatives, artists and entrepreneurs scale up their businesses will be essential in building capacity to allow for sustainable, inclusive growth that helps women as well as men.
For all the opportunities offered by this new digital economy, it is sad to see that women and girls are already lagging behind. According to recent research, women consume more technology than men, yet more men than women design technology. At our forthcoming meeting, we will pay special attention to identifying how the world is failing to connect women and girls to technology, and explore opportunities to turn this around.
We know it’s possible: initiatives like the Girl Effect have illustrated that we can galvanize teenage girls to engage with multimedia. How much more can we achieve by enshrining the internet as a basic constitutional right?
Last year at our World Economic Forum on Africa, the Cape Town International Convention Centre rocked to the tune of Strong Girls, a hit song performed by four remarkable artists from across Africa as part of ONE’s Poverty is Sexist campaign. In 2016, it is time to tell the world that Africa’s future is digital. The #Smartgirl era has arrived.