Digital connectivity has the potential to do for Africa what railroads did for Western economies in the 19th century. The digital revolution is not just about communication. It is about recognizing that information is the currency of all economic activities.
Unfortunately, despite the rapid adoption of mobile phones, Africa lags behind other regions in its use of core digital platforms such as the internet. This is compounded by the high prices charged for critical digital services such as broadband.
What must Africa do to be a part of this digital revolution that is sweeping across other regions? The stakes are high: failure to translate the opportunity into tangible gains could contribute to youth unemployment, political instability and widespread despair. But if Africa can master the digital revolution, it could usher in a new epoch of economic transformation. There are at least five strategies that could help the continent do that.
1. Invest in digital
Digital technologies need to be defined as critical infrastructure and supported as such. The high initial cost and low capacity utilization of undersea fibre-optic cables around Africa shows that these investments share the same attributes as railways, electric grids, roads, and water and sanitation.
In many cases the investments need to be made ahead of demand, which makes it difficult to rely only on the private sector. Smart partnerships between governments and the private sector are needed to expand the reach of digital infrastructure. Otherwise the benefits will be limited to pockets in urban areas, which in turn will widen inequities and hobble rural entrepreneurship.
Equally important are policies that give equal access to digital infrastructure. This should be guided by the principle of net neutrality, which dictates that all internet traffic and users should be treated equally by providers. Such policies would be the same as the rules that govern equal access to roads by all types of vehicles. Rules for digital infrastructure that do not adopt net neutrality would undermine youth innovation by favouring incumbent industries.
2. Recognize that digital is about more than communication
We must recognize the power of exponential growth in digital platforms and harness them in time. This growth is also associated with remarkable technological diversification. New digital technologies are driving advances in fields such as 3D printing, drones, artificial intelligence, robots and the internet of things.
Digital connectivity has to be defined in a more comprehensive way that goes beyond traditional communication.
3. Train a new generation of Africans
Concerted efforts will need to be made to train a new generation of Africans to ensure they are able to understand these emerging digital technologies and grasp the associated entrepreneurial opportunities. As illustrated by the case of Rwanda with entrepreneurial education, the impact of such training can be far-reaching if started in high school.
Training in relevant engineering and associated fields will help Africa reap the digital dividends. Low levels of engineering training need to be addressed by African governments and enterprises as a matter of urgency. For example, half of Kenya’s university engineering courses are not approved. Expanding opportunities for young people will need to be provided by making higher education relevant to development needs.
4. Help companies scale
The best way to reap the digital dividends is to create goods and services. The seeds of such entrepreneurial activities exist in many information technology hubs across Africa. But most of these hubs do not have what is needed to become effective entrepreneurial ecosystems. Many of Africa’s hubs simply focus on creating start-ups. While this is important, it’s also preventing policy-makers and investors from helping more established businesses to scale up so they can compete regionally and globally.
Digital entrepreneurship is emerging in various parts of Africa that have previously never been home to such activities. Young people are therefore left to operate without much guidance. New mentoring activities will need to be designed to foster entrepreneurial learning. An example of such an effort is the Africa Engineering Innovation Prize by the UK-based Royal Academy of Engineering which provides mentorship to awardees. More of such initiatives, paying particularly attention to the needs of women entrepreneurs, need to be created across Africa.
5. Think big, think regional
Finally, current efforts to foster regional trade integration provide a unique opportunity to catch the digital innovation wave. The spread of terrestrial fibre-optic cables illustrates the opportunities offered by continent-wide digital integration. Unlike the colonial railway networks that were used to move commodities out of Africa, digital networks would form new backbones for intra-African trade. They should be given priority in all negotiations on regional and continental economic integration.
The successful implementation of these strategies will require close cooperation between governments, industry, academia and civil society. To make it a reality, we will have to build national and regional capacity for high-level ministerial coordination. The only way of doing that is with the direct engagement of African heads of state and government as champions of innovation.
The author's next book, Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies, will be published by Oxford University Press in July 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @Calestous.