Africa in the Age of Digital Technology: An Overview

Celebrating World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD)

Photo by Mario Caruso on Unsplash

By

Chinonso Ihuoma

Date Published

May 17, 2024

Category

Global

Introduction

Digital technology involves tools used in the transmission, reception, and storage of information and data. They are gadgets and systems that are majorly programmed for generating, storing, processing, or managing information or data. The origin of digital technology dates back to the 17th century, with the development of mechanical digital calculators by German and French scientists and philosophers Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Blaise Pascal. By the 1830s, Charles Babbage had invented the Difference Engine, an early calculating machine and the Analytical Engine, generally regarded as the first computer. Some advancements in digital technology were witnessed in the remaining first half of the 19th century. 

The digital revolution of the 1970s led to the introduction of microprocessors, thereby making digital technology more affordable to the public. Consequently, continuous modifications and innovations in digital technology led to the easy transfer of computers from the developed world to developing countries. Africa was later to be introduced into the digital world through technology transfers.

Despite being a latecomer in the digital environment, Africa has witnessed significant development in its digital environment. Data from the World Bank shows that while over 160 million Africans had access to broadband internet between 2019 and 2022, the number of internet users in sub-Saharan Africa increased by 115% between 2016 and 2021. Also, a World Bank study showed that in 2021, 36% of individuals in Africa had access to the i nternet and projected that by 2023, over 75% of Africans will have access to the internet, thanks to the fourth industrial revolution and global digitisation, which have the potential to significantly transform Africa.

International institutions and the development of Digital Technology in Africa

Digitalization in Africa is one of the major goals of Africa’s 2063 agenda. Ensuring a skills revolution in science, technology, and innovation and promoting the creation of a well-educated population is intended to be achieved through the collaborative potential of ICT and other relevant sectors of the African economy. Hence, through a joint initiative between and among the AU, European Union (EU), and International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Policy and Regulatory Initiative for Digital Africa (PRIDA) was introduced to drive the Digital Transformation Strategy (DTS) and achieve increased progress by 2030. This progress is expected to be reflected in a digital single market (DSM) in Africa, which will ensure smooth socio-economic transactions across the continent. 

The African Union (AU), on its part, has made efforts to promote advancement in the field of ICT. The AU’s agenda to promote transformed economies in Africa is focused on promoting digital transformation for comprehensive economic innovation and sustainable growth and development. Some of its efforts were the introduction of Resolution 795 (XXX) of May 3, 1995, which focused on the theme “building Africa's information highway,” and Resolution 812 (XXXI), themed “implementation of the African Information Society Initiative (AISI).” Through these resolutions, the Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) will establish an advanced working committee to formulate an action plan on ICT that will promote socio-economic development on the continent. Also, through this initiative, African heads of state and government were implored to promote the agenda of the  African Information Society Initiative (AISI), shorten the digital differences between the continent and the globe, create more digital opportunities on the continent, and accelerate Africa’s entry into the global ICT economy.

In addition, the AU is using the 2014 Smart Africa initiative to drive home the need for continuous upgrades of digital technology across the continent. Consequently, projects like “the One Africa Network Project,” “Smart Africa Digital Academy Scale Up Project,” “bulk purchase of wholesale submarine and satellite internet bandwidth,” “Digital Terrestrial Television,” “Blockchain,” “Smart Devices,” and “Smart Africa Scholarship Fund Project” are currently ongoing. Smart Africa has successfully flagged off over 10 projects across some countries on the continent while anticipating 5 projects. 

ITU’s efforts at digital innovation in Africa focus on facilitating and improving digital transformation on the African continent through partnerships and promoting digitalization in the education, health, and finance sectors. ITU’s Africa Region Initiatives (2023-2025) are designed to enhance the digital revolution, expand broadband infrastructure and cybersecurity, and foster digital skills, digital gender equality, and digital innovation in Africa. Through its Telecommunication Development Sector (ITU-D), ITU is currently encouraging initiatives aimed at improving consistent internet connectivity. It does this by facilitating “spectrum management, infrastructure maps (with data from over 580 operators covering 20 million kilometers), broadcasting, conformity and interoperability, next-generation networks, broadband networks, and rural communications.”

The European Investment Bank's (EIB) initiatives are among the main forces behind the European Union's efforts to promote digital technology in Africa. The bank’s agenda includes the improvement of investments in telecommunication infrastructure, the provision of financial support geared towards specific digital infrastructure projects, and investments in cybersecurity. Also, the bank favours investments in digital services that promote innovative utilisation of ICT for socio-economic development across Africa. Consequently, the EIB  has provided over €2.5 billion in investment support funds to private companies in Africa that engage in digital infrastructure and services.

Africa and the Challenges of Digital Technology in the 21st Century

ICT has created significant transformations in Africa’s economy. The presence of ICT in Africa led to more job opportunities, reduced inequalities and poverty rates, and improved personal and company income and productivity, among others.  Digital technology contributed around 1.7 million jobs in the formal and informal sectors, contributed 8.5% of Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP), and generated $15.6 billion in revenue for the government. However, the World Bank’s survey showed that Sub-Saharan Africa is still saddled with underdeveloped digital infrastructure, poor access to the internet, a high cost of obtaining internet services,  limited skills for digital technology development, and inadequate digital policies.

The cost of internet subscription services in Africa remains on the high side when compared with the average income of Africans. A World Bank study reveals that a monthly subscription of 1.5 GB of data is equivalent to nearly one-third of the income of the 40% of Africans living below the global poverty line. This makes it almost impossible for a larger population of Africans to access the internet, since they have to struggle to meet their daily basic needs.

Apart from the cost of purchasing internet services, Africa is still struggling with the challenge of underdeveloped digital infrastructure, as many African countries still lack adequate digital infrastructure. Africa is among the continents with poor broadband infrastructure and this directly affects the number of people with access to the internet. Although Africa had over 400 million broadband connections in 2018, its 3G and 4G connections were only 25% in 2018. By December 2021, only four out of 10 Africans had internet access but despite this increase from the previous year's statistics, Africa’s internet penetration in 2023 remained the lowest globally. 

Africa’s poor access to the internet is not a unique one. A study shows that less than one-third of the global population has no internet connection, while less than one-third of the African population has access to the internet. According to the EIB, in 2021, over 900 million individuals living in Africa had no access to the internet. In 2022, a study revealed that Africa had over 566 million internet users, yet, despite this large number of users, the internet penetration rate stood at around 43%, which was below the global average of 66%. Given this reality, the World Bank notes that Africa still needs to bring about 1.1 billion more people online and will need an estimate of over $100 billion to ensure easy access to broadband and high-quality internet access by 2030. 

What could be done differently?

Digital technology is instrumental in achieving all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Its role in ensuing strategic progress in achieving SDG 9 of ensuring a strong infrastructural system, sustainable industrial processes, and inclusive innovation should be of major interest to Africa. ICT has come to stay and has been credited with a series of socio-economic developments across the globe. Although improvements were witnessed in Africa in 2022 with an 11% growth rate of band users, which is 7% higher than the global average, Africa’s broadband connectivity is projected to rise by 20% by 2030. To sustain this development and stay abreast of digital transformation, African leaders need to invest in digital technology, facilitate the provision of affordable financial loan packages for private businesses, and prioritize policies that ensure access to affordable broadband across rural and urban areas. African leaders must consider the role of a good business environment and digital technology in ensuring sustained progress in Africa’s digital economy. Policies also need to be streamlined to encourage more internet service providers’ engagement in broadband penetration across the continent. 

Also, basic skills in ICT should be introduced and judiciously taught in basic education learning centres to enable students who wish to migrate into the informal sector to tap into the potential of digital technology. Government agencies also need to adopt e-services to cut down on the excessive amount of time the public wastes getting their services. When e-services are encouraged and sustained across Africa, the African population will become tech-savvy, thereby boosting the potential of ICT to thrive more in Africa.

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Disclaimer: This information in this article is NOT investment advice. It is intended for information and entertainment purposes only.

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