Geographies in Depth

Tony Blair: Why Africa’s digital revolution will be powered by partnerships

A delegate checks a blackberry handset at an exhibition stand during the West & Central Africa Com conference in Nigeria's capital Abuja, June 18, 2009. Nigeria's mobile subscriber base is growing at around the fastest pace since the advent of GSM technology at the start of the decade, but average revenue per user is tailing off, industry analysts said on Wednesday.

Image: REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Tony Blair
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1997-2007); Executive Chairman, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum on Africa

The intellectual genesis of the digital revolution was collaboration; people working together to pioneer technological breakthroughs that have allowed them to nurture their own imagination and ally creatively with others.

Foremost elements came from a combination of public and private, humanities and hard science, amateurs and academics; different elements of society seeking to tackle the same issues, and in the process creating unprecedented access to ideas and knowledge and unparalleled potential for innovation. This same spirit of co-operation now raises the possibility of star voyages and multi-planetary existence. Closer to home, it offers something simpler but just as profound: a chance for the developing world to leap forward.

Mobile money

This is happening with mobile technology. Right across the world we have adopted, then adapted, this technology so it is so much more than just a communications device. It is almost certainly going to be the world’s first universal tech product. In sub-Saharan Africa, mobile growth is so strong that building landlines is no longer necessary. With one in five accounts also connected to mobile money – half of Kenya’s GDP is handled through it – it is helping to break down conventional models of banking, and keep cash out of the hands of militants, conmen and the corrupt.

Where access to banking is low, mobile technology has revolutionized local commerce. But African countries also have the possibility to use the latest technology in developing financial sectors more broadly.

Take blockchain. Central banks are looking at distributed ledgers and central-bank-issued digital currencies in the belief that records can be held securely without any central authority. Added to this is the issue of trust: it’s simple to create a new addition to the chain, but impossible to counterfeit.

A leap forward for developing countries

Beyond cryptocurrency, it also has potential in areas such as issuing passports, collecting tax and collating electoral roles. And the point for developing countries is: in building up new sectors and systems, they can use latest innovations, partnering with tech companies and Western nations, rather than having to start from the bottom up.

Rwanda has already started down this path: 4G was launched two years ago through a joint venture. The country has now partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to set up a campus to teach technical degrees. And along with international architects and universities, a new project will see the world’s first drone port be built in Kigali, with the country planning to fly drones to distribute medicines and urgent medical supplies to remote areas, overcoming the infrastructure gaps that have held back development.

The country is also building schools that focus on computer programming. One example is the Gashora Girls Academy, which teaches coding and empowers young women to take up tech roles after graduation. Code clubs are also being formed across schools in East Africa, which might someday have the same impact as the Homebrew Computer Club had in the US. Together with regional partners Uganda and Kenya, Rwanda has established tech accelerators – the “Silicon Savannah”. In West Africa, apps are also helping keep academic records in Nigeria, while new academies in Sierra Leone are having performance data analysed by Oxford University.

Africa in the driving seat

These are promising beginnings. But capitalizing on the potential of technology to improve lives and prospects across the continent requires a new way of working together.

After my time as Britain’s prime minister, I set up the Africa Governance Initiative in the belief that the old way of doing development, where the rich world gives and the poor world passively receives, is out of date. African countries must be in the driving seat of their own development, setting the priorities and making the decisions. And what the West should be doing is making sure our expertise – technology firms, investors, as well as aid and development – is available, for any developing government that wants it.

First and foremost, this is needed in helping nations develop their basic technological infrastructure.

In the West, this is about servers and data; web traffic will drop significantly if a site takes longer than two seconds to load. But for many in Africa, it’s simply about having a power supply. Only one in four Africans currently has access to electricity. And all of the presidents I work with name access to electricity as a top priority.

From power plans to power plants

This is extraordinary when you consider that by 1940, nearly 100% of US urban homes had electricity. Again technology offers solutions. Even in an era of cheap oil, renewable energy continues to expand rapidly; the price of solar is 1/150th its level in the 1970s – and the amount installed has increased exponentially. Rwanda recently completed East Africa’s largest solar power plant, adding 6% to their grid. Guinea installed thousands of solar-powered street lights, while Liberia’s Mount Coffee Hydro plant is set to quadruple their energy capacity next year.

Second, to encourage this type of innovation, as well as ensure that collective entrepreneurship can happen, we also need to continue to work with African nations to promote good governance, ensuring there is strong rule of law and systems in place so that governments can change power plans to power plants.

Third, at a time when populists from both left and right ride public anger in the West, we should not lose sight of the fact that success in the modern age requires being open to the world; building alliances, integrating ideas and ensuring they are pushed across the boundaries of nation or culture. Rwanda and Kenya have already capitalized on this. Along with other countries in the region, they have formed the East African Community. This unrestricted trade area has cut the cost of doing business sharply, for example by doing away with roaming tariffs.

Collaboration, openness, the circulation of knowledge, research and information helped found the digital age. They will also be the foundation for further progress today. In Africa, there is a new generation of leadership, which is pushing the continent forward, confident in its future. This optimism has seen them embrace technology, and use it as a force for good. This is right, because if history has taught us anything, it’s that pessimists tend to be poor guides to the future.

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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Related topics:
Geographies in DepthFourth Industrial Revolution
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