As Africa prepares to host the World Economic Forum in Durban, South Africa's largest and busiest port, there is much reason to focus on the continent, which continues to promote itself as a promising investment destination.

In the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its disruptive effect on all economies, there are three things to consider as Africa aims to maintain its “Africa rising” narrative:

  • The development of digital skills is paramount;
  • All industries are being digitally disrupted, which presents an opportunity for a growing digital economy;
  • Public-private partnerships are powerful levers for change.

Digital opportunities outweigh threats

The real economy and the digital economy are not mutually exclusive. The two have become one and the same as technologies blur the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. The vast and growing potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is yet to be fully grasped. The ICT sector, industry and governments have a responsibility to unlock its potential for citizen service delivery, customer experience and innovative solutions, for a better life for all.

Entire systems of production, management and governance are being affected and, as digitization continues, the issue becomes intimately intertwined with addressing youth unemployment, manufacturing and harnessing human innovation.

Furthermore, the increase of mobile and internet use comes with its own threats – namely cybersecurity, which has become a massive global problem. To offer some perspective on the cybersecurity: there are roughly three billion Google searches a day, while Cisco blocks, on average, 19.7 billion cybersecurity threats every single day. Prioritizing cybersecurity capabilities is not only important for protecting organizations and their customers’ data, assets and reputations, but also fundamental to successful digital transformation – the area where we’re seeing economic growth occur for Africa.

Digital skills enable services growth

As Africa becomes more driven by services and less dependent on commodities, the continent must foster digital skills as part of transitioning its population from low-skill and low-pay jobs to high-skill and high-pay jobs. Workers need to educate and equip themselves with new skills, through programmes like the Cisco Networking Academy, Telkom Futuremakers, Vodacom Foundation e-Learning and numerous others, so they are not displaced by digital transformation.

Time to digitally support Africa

Beyond skills development, supporting the ICT sector provides a major boost to economic growth, productivity and employment. Together with collaborators like the World Economic Forum Africa, Ericsson and Boston Consulting Group, Cisco is supporting the Northern Corridor Integration Projects. In 2013, the presidents of Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and South Sudan decided to include ICT as one of the strategic areas for facilitating integration within the region. A technical team was tasked with designing ICT projects for the same purpose within the countries. The Northern Corridor collaborators are helping these countries move from conceptualization to implementation of these projects, which includes:

1. ICT policy, infrastructure implementation and broadband connectivity;

2. Roaming charges and termination rates;

3. Harmonization of SIM registration regime;

4. Cybersecurity;

5. Mainstreaming of ICT in the integration projects;

6. E-services;

7. ICT skills and human capital development;

8. Digital migration;

9. Support for development of policy and regulatory framework to the Republic of South Sudan.

The Northern Corridor is the busiest and most important transport route in East and Central Africa, linking the landlocked economies of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Eastern DRC and Southern Sudan to Kenya’s maritime port of Mombasa. The alternative transport network serves the landlocked Great Lakes Region of Africa through Tanzania and is linked to Dar es Salaam.

Because these countries rely heavily on the Northern Corridor for their overseas trade, as well as trade among themselves, they are contracted parties to the Northern Corridor Agreement. The agreement provides the legal framework for collaboration among these countries on matters relating to: transit transport, customs control, documentation and procedures; as well as the development of infrastructure and facilities relating to seaports, inland ports and waterways, roads, railways, pipelines and border posts. In 2013, ICT was added to the agreement making it an integral part of their economic ambitions.

But isn’t it time for these countries to consider extending the Northern Corridor Agreement – a project that has the potential to push the Fourth Industrial Revolution beyond East Africa?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is synonymous with uncharted growth in digitization and internet connectivity. It has the potential to drive Africa forward like never before, enabling innovation, spurring new business models and improving the delivery of public services.