Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have the potential to transform business and government in Africa, driving entrepreneurship, innovation and economic growth. ‘eTransform Africa’ – a report produced by the World Bank and the African Development Bank, with the support of the African Union, identifies best practice in the use of ICTs in key sectors of the African economy.
The mobile phone has revolutionized communications in Africa.
The explosive growth of mobile phones in Africa over the past decade demonstrates the appetite for change across the continent. In the year 2000, there were fewer than 20 million fixed-line phones across Africa, a number that had accumulated slowly over a century, and a waiting list of a further 3.5 million. With a penetration rate of just over 2 per cent, phones were to be found only in offices and the richest households. But the coming of the mobile phone has transformed communications access.
By 2012, there were almost 650 million mobile subscriptions in Africa, more than in the US or the European Union, making Africa the second fastest growing region in the world. Few imagined that such demand existed, let alone that it could be afforded. In some African countries, more people have access to a mobile phone than to clean water, a bank account or even electricity.
Africa’s “mobile decade” has driven its economic growth.
Foreign Direct Investment is booming and Africa is now a much easier place to do business, thanks to its much improved connectivity. ICTs directly contribute around 7 per cent of Africa’s GDP, which is higher than the global average. That’s because, in Africa, mobile phones give access to services that are available in traditional forms in more developed countries, such as financial credit, newspapers, games and entertainment. So the value of a mobile phone is higher in Africa than elsewhere. We are now seeing the rapid development of mobile broadband with smartphones and affordable tablets across Africa. This will bring even greater social and economic impacts over the next decade.
ICTs can empower the lives of Africans and are driving entrepreneurship, innovation and income growth.
The effect of ICTs on the African economy is impressive, but it is the way they are changing the lives of ordinary Africans that is genuinely transformational. The eTransform Africa report details how mobile phones are being used to provide financial services in Kenya (M-PESA) and agricultural market information services in Ghana (Esoko), how electronic filing of taxes in South Africa or sensor-based irrigation systems in Egypt are revolutionizing traditional practices, and how Africans are facing up to new challenges like climate change or HIV/AIDS armed with new tools. Furthermore, the wider use of ICTs in government is bringing more transparency and openness, for instance through Kenya’s Open Data initiative or the use of Twitter and Facebook to coordinate protests and inform international opinion as part of the Arab Spring. This growing social and economic dependence on ICTs brings new challenges, not least the need for infrastructure to become more robust and resilient, and for services to become more reliable. Issues of cyber-security and data protection will also come to the fore as security and trust become increasingly important.
It’s not about the phone or the computer; it’s about the applications and the information they deliver.
ICTs now offer major opportunities to advance human development – from providing basic access to education or health information to making cash payments and stimulating citizen involvement in the democratic process. Phones, computers and websites are powerful tools but it is individuals, communities and firms that are driving change. Mobile phones and the internet are helping to release the dynamism of African society. State-owned monopoly telephone companies were, for too long, a barrier to African ingenuity – due to waiting lists, high prices and unreliable services – but now a thriving local ICT sector is part of the solution, not the problem. In many of Africa’s largest cities, smartphones can now be obtained for under US$100. They have the equivalent computer power of a PC that would have cost over US$3,000 a decade earlier. With cheap data packages and free WiFi, smartphones can be used to start a business, or to get a job in Africa’s growing information sector.
Governments have an important role to play, in creating an enabling environment and in acting as a lead client for large-scale ICT-based programmes.
Governments may participate directly in infrastructure investment, as the government of Botswana did when creating an alternative fibre route to the coast via Nambia. But their larger role lies in creating an enabling environment – issuing licenses, making available rights of way, auctioning spectrum or mandating infrastructure sharing and interconnection – that allows a liberalized market to thrive. Beyond that, governments can serve as a leading customer for faster networks, and can migrate their own services and data online. When the Kenyan government allowed exam results to go online, it provided a major demand driver for mobile broadband, and stimulated further investment in that country’s networks. Similarly, in Ethiopia, government and donor sponsorship of eHealth initiatives is helping to finance network investment.
ICTs can ease crossborder communications, financial transactions, and sharing of data and information and have a catalytic impact upon regional integration and trade facilitation.
Until recently it was cheaper to call America or Europe from Africa than a neighbouring country. And Africa’s entire internet connectivity was less than that of the tiny country of Luxembourg. Such disparities hindered crossborder regional trade. But this has changed with some 68,000 km of submarine cable and over 615,000 km of national backbone networks laid in the past few years. The internet bandwidth available to Africa’s one billion citizens grew 20-fold between 2008 and 2012. These electronic highways will provide the trading routes of the future. Africa no longer needs to look beyond its shores for trading partners and the electronic links to make this happen are slowly but surely being put in place.
The deployment of ICTs and the development of applications must be rooted in the realities of local circumstance and diversity.
Despite the optimism caused by Africa’s ICT revolution, there is no one-size-fits-all model, and services that prove popular in one country may fail elsewhere. National ICT strategies must be developed locally, building upon consultative stakeholder processes and adapted to local circumstances. The private sector will drive the investment, and provided more than US$56 billion in telecom infrastructure investment in the decade to 2008. But this may not be enough to ensure competitive markets, or to reach rural areas. Public Private Partnerships (PPPs), such as the Burundi Backbone System consortium, can help. But there are still whole countries, such as the newly independent South Sudan, that are connected to the outside world only through slow and expensive satellite links.
Effective use of ICTs will require crosssectoral collaboration and a multistakeholder approach, based on open data and open innovation.
Valuable and sustainable ICT applications are most likely to develop within an environment that encourages experimentation and collaboration between technologists, entrepreneurs and development practitioners. Often, stakeholders may combine their interests in communal projects, such as the creation of the Cape Town Internet exchange. The recent flowering of local ICT development clusters (LIDs) – such as iHub and NaiLab in Kenya, Hive CoLab and AppLab in Uganda, Activspaces in Cameroon, BantaLabs in Senegal or infoDev’s mLabs in Kenya and South Africa – is helping to create new spaces for collaboration, training, applications and content development, and for pre-incubation of firms.
Africa is still at the beginning of its growth curve and, to date, most ICT applications have been pilot programmes. Now is the time for rigorous evaluation, replication and scaling up of best practice.
The research carried out for this study has highlighted a number of success stories and has shown examples of programmes that could be scaled up and replicated elsewhere. But there is a lack of systematic monitoring of outcomes, and cost-benefit analyses of investments are rare. Nevertheless, the evidence that has been marshaled in these studies, the most comprehensive carried out to date, does point to the potential for effective rollout and a period of growth ahead. Africa was once an ICT laggard, but is now becoming an ICT leader. Innovations that began in Africa – like dual SIM card mobile phones, or using mobile phones for remittance payments – are now spreading across the continent and beyond.