Geographies in Depth

5 things Africa's leaders can do to drive digital growth

Journalists work inside their Eritrea Television newsroom in the capital Asmara, February 20, 2016.

Digital democracy ... why the public sector needs to lead the way Image: REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Amrote Abdella
Regional Director, Microsoft 4Afrika Initiatives
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The Digital Economy

This article is part of: World Economic Forum on Africa

The Fourth Industrial Revolution was a hot topic at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos. But it left us asking one question: What does it mean for Africa?

To a large extent, when the first and second industrial revolutions took place in the West, when the adoption of machines and factories swept Europe, the impact was most felt in the labour markets.

During the Second Industrial Revolution, which was driven by electricity and the expansion of steel and petroleum, as more people swarmed the cities, Africa still lagged behind. It was not until the Third Industrial Revolution, when information technology and electronics transformed our lives in Africa, that we saw more people striking out on their own, more job-hopping and less reliance on traditional employment.

And now, as we face the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we will see the barriers between man and machine dissolve. Africa has been undergoing a digital revolution for the last 15 years and is gradually achieving the standards of the most advanced nations.

However, connectivity still trails behind the world at 21%, compared to 43% achieved elsewhere, according to ITU. Hence, the majority of Africa’s youth, as well as its small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) lack the basic skills that can enable them to take part in the digital economy. Hence the immediate need to provide all citizens with access to online tools and content for learning and doing business.

What does this technology-driven revolution mean for Africa? Routine blue-collar and white-collar jobs will start becoming automated, which means that creativity, IT and foundational skills will win over traditional know-how. Employers will rely less on traditional knowledge, prioritizing innovation and adaptability instead. High-skilled jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths will also increase.

The key for Africa, then, will be to adopt an innovative mindset and focus on skills development to ensure that digital transformation opportunities can be filled – and led – by Africans. It will also mean that now, more than ever before, Africa must become a creator, and not just a consumer, of technology. The public sector needs to lead the way, setting the example for inclusive transformation that benefits all.

So what can governments do to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

1. Break tradition

Governments across Africa need to replace traditional approaches to delivering citizen-centric services with innovative solutions powered by technologies such as cloud computing. Several countries are already well on their way. In Morocco, for example, a service known as e-Notary digitizes the top five administrative services used during litigation. Thanks to a biometric eKiosk, citizens can create a once-off biometric link to their online profile, allowing them to access services remotely. Over the years, spending in government services has risen dramatically – and is continuing to do so. The IDC predicts that investments in public cloud services across the Middle East, Turkey and Africa will grow 22.6% year-on-year in 2016 to total of more than $500 million.

Cloud computing will enable governments to not only streamline their processes and service delivery, but enhance data collection and analytics. Government data collection and analysis can empower industries to compete on a global level by making information available on current trends, predicting future opportunities and even devising modern marketing tactics. Regulations are essential to create a regulatory environment that promotes innovative and confident use of technology. A balance must be struck between the free-flow of data and information, and privacy policies.

As governments continue to invest in digital transformation, civil servants need to be trained on how to optimize these innovations. As more tasks become automated, public-sector resources will be freed up to focus on better service delivery. Initiatives such as Microsoft’s 4Afrika School of Government aims to facilitate this, by partnering with governments on internal capacity building for civil servants, to embrace innovation and to be change-agents in the public-sector space.

2. Include everyone

There is a concern that digital transformation could increase Africa’s income gap even further, as automated jobs leave the working class unemployed. The key is skills development in STEM fields, especially artistic and creative ones. As Africa works to shift from a labour-based economy to a knowledge economy, investments in 21st-century education and skills development is no longer an option but an imperative. Strategies and policies for future skills and jobs will remain key in transforming lives, generating prosperity and promoting social inclusion.

3. Democratize information

Data is emerging as the new currency for the digital age, creating new opportunities never imagined in the past revolutions. In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, data is what cotton was in the First Industrial Revolution. As more governments decentralize decision-making and increase responsiveness, they are seeking to empower more citizens by putting meaningful data in their hands. Democratization of information will play a key role in levelling the playing field. The prevalence of mobile phones has already enabled more people across Africa to take part in politics, casting their vote and getting in touch with municipalities.

However, more needs to be done – especially at the regulatory level – to increase affordable internet access so more people can participate in the economy of information. South Africa’s Connect, as an example, is the national broadband strategic plan, which aims to deliver affordable broadband access to 90% of the country's population by 2020, and 100% by 2030, to reinforce a dynamic and connected knowledge economy that is more inclusive, equitable and prosperous. Countrywide broadband provides access to the creation and consumption of a wide range of applications and services necessary for effective economic and social participation.

4. Create a new playing field for new business models

The enterprising spirit of Africa’s youth reflects how Africans are becoming innovative in finding locally relevant solutions to daily challenges in health, agriculture and education, among other areas. How are governments in Africa tapping into this innovative spirit and readying young people to compete globally, this ensuring faster and quicker business growth?

As we move into the new revolution, a business-friendly environment and culture of entrepreneurship will be key. Africa needs to enable the growth of businesses that are creators of technology, not only consumers of it. A locally skilled workforce, updated legislation in the realm of cybersecurity and data privacy, affordable bandwidth, and a culture of innovation will promote growth of these types of businesses.

Governments play a pivotal role in creating an enabling environment for new business models and investment. Today, Microsoft is helping governments streamline regulations and ease-of-doing-business by using cloud computing through initiatives such as Africa Open for Business. This enables investors to easily navigate the complexity, time and cost of complying with business governance and regulations on the continent.

5. Collaborate to innovate

As governments in Africa continue to aim for economic growth, good governance, innovation in local economies and the creation of jobs, most (if not all) will continue to encounter many challenges in the delivery of services to citizens, to business, or in relation to intra-governmental operations. The ability of these governments to adapt and drive digital transformation across all segments of society will determine their competitiveness.

If Africa can embrace a world of disruption and change, it will endure. It will also deliver on its promise to be the next “growth pole” of the world.

This article is part of our Africa series. You can read more here.

The World Economic Forum on Africa is taking place in Kigali, Rwanda from 11 to 13 May

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