• Africa has much to teach us about how to ensure everyone shares in a bright digital future.
  • Existing business models and research often won’t translate, while services need to be curated from the ground up for specific markets, ideally with local partnerships.
  • There is a huge opportunity because billions don’t yet have set habits for digital services, in both emerging and developed markets, so there are no incumbents to disrupt.

In 2010, I held a town hall with my team in Lagos, Nigeria. There were only three of us there and we met at a table in a Chinese restaurant by the hotel. At the time, Mastercard only had permanent offices in Johannesburg, Cairo and Casablanca – and we were just starting to expand our business in Africa.

Just over a decade later, Mastercard has expanded its operations to dozens of new markets across the continent including Chad, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Together with our partners, we brought digital payments – including QR codes, ATMs and point-of-sale terminals – to over 3.5 million locations across Africa. We now directly employ nearly 350 people in Africa – more than the few we had when we met at that restaurant all those years ago. And the broader economic and social impact is much greater.

This effort to modernize the way people move money around was an important way to encourage economic activity and entrepreneurship – but it’s just one piece of the puzzle. There is, of course, a lot more work to do to grow economies in Africa and make sure citizens across the continent – and around the world – benefit from the new digital economy.

That work has gained new urgency as the COVID-19 pandemic speeds up the world’s shift to digital tools – from remote work to online education to e-commerce. COVID-19 also trained a bright spotlight on the inequalities that still exist globally and all that still needs to be done to improve infrastructure and opportunities for people.

It’s desperately important to take this moment of heightened attention on the needs of people and evaluate what we all need to do to support the developing world. We need to take this opportunity to make sure everyone can share in the bright digital future. And we need to be deliberate, not leaving hope for improvements to chance or another generation.

There are a few things I learned from our work in Africa that could support this effort.

Lessons learned for a brighter digital future

First, we found that you can’t just pull things off the shelf from your product set in the US or Europe and expect them to work in another country, particularly when many people still have limited access to basic financial services. Existing business models and research sometimes won’t translate. Services often need to be curated from the ground up for specific markets, ideally with partnerships with local businesses and governments.

For example, we teamed up with MTN, a mobile network operator in Africa, to bring more digital services to MTN’s platform. That work puts data analytics and payments tools right on the phones of local entrepreneurs, helping them manage their businesses. We have also found that these mobile network operators are a great way to reach more people with financial and digital literacy programs.

Second, the most successful projects in any country need a market purpose. Building digital tools in a new country for only philanthropic purposes doesn’t work. Charitable funding will eventually move onto the next big story. When properly focused, the competitive market can be used to drive down costs and create better products for people.

In Kenya, the Jaza Duka program gives small shop owners short-term credit and digital payment capabilities to help them build their creditworthiness and stock their shelves without having to rely solely on cash. This project has thrived because it filled a market need and could sustain itself financially. There are now 1,700 stores buying on credit through the program every week, and similar programs are being rolled out with new partners and in other parts of the world.

Lastly, small steps can lead to much bigger things a few months or years down the line. I saw that with our Africa business, but there’s also great potential for startups and multinationals to tap into right now. That’s because billions of people don’t have set habits for digital services, in both emerging and developed markets – so there are no incumbents to disrupt or habits to break. That’s a huge opportunity to provide digital services, such as banking or telehealth or online grocery, and draw in new customers who aren’t already loyal to an existing brand.

Image: The EDISON Alliance

Empowering people for a digital future

More does need to be done to create standards and grow partnerships to ensure people aren’t left behind in this brave new digital world. An important example is the EDISON Alliance, a public-private partnership launched last year by the World Economic Forum. The group pushes for affordable digital opportunities that are inclusive and can benefit everyone – not just a few. It’s one more important step in making tech and banking tools as trusted, accessible and useful as possible.

Work to modernize and expand access to the digital economy shouldn’t be done simply to prepare for the next calamity or pandemic. It’s a way to power economies and empower people right now.