ICT in Africa – Innovation and emerging technologies to beat the technology gap
Information and communications technologies (ICTs) offer a means of substantially improving productivity and efficiency across a broad number of economic sectors for companies, as well as both developed, and developing countries.
Borge Brende and Robert Greenhill, of the World Economic Forum, note in the Global Information Technology Report that developing and emerging economies, such as in Africa, are focusing on innovation in order to sustain the high economic growth rates they have experienced in the past decade. It is through the maintenance of those growth rates that developing countries hope to achieve higher levels of economic and social prosperity. ICTs can play a substantial role in supporting economic growth and creating jobs. ICTs allow companies to operate at greater levels of efficiency which in turn allow them to redirect resources toward other productive investments. Moreover, ICTs are a source of innovation that can generate increased economic growth and new sources of high value-added jobs.
In the case of African countries in particular, a technology gap exists, which prevents effective utilisation of ICT-enablers such as broad scale digitisation, or connectivity to the ‘internet of things’. However, innovative ICT implementation, and a range of emerging technologies, offer a means for African countries to bridge that technology gap.
The technology gap facing Africa
The 2013 Global Information Technology Report, jointly published by INSEAD and the World Bank, notes that sub-Saharan Africa has continued to make significant efforts to build its ICT infrastructure. This is particularly reflected by improvements in broadband infrastructure development and in the expansion of its mobile network coverage. While ICT usage in the region has increased as a result a sharp digital divide persists between sub-Saharan African economies and developed economies.
The Networked Readiness Index (NRI), calculated by the World Economic Forum and INSEAD, ranks 144 economies based on their capacity to exploit the opportunities offered by the digital age. According to the Global Information Technology Report: “this capacity is determined by the quality of the regulatory, business and innovation environments, the degree of preparedness, the actual usage of ICTs, as well as the societal and economic impacts of ICTs.”
Only two sub-Saharan countries, Mauritius (55th) and South Africa (70th), are positioned in the top half of the rankings, while nine out of the bottom ten belong to the region. The cause of this technology gap is attributed to the still-costly access to ICT infrastructure, the relatively low levels of skills with low educational attainments found in the region’s workforce, and unfavourable business conditions for entrepreneurship and innovation in general, stemming from a lack of government support.
The potential of emerging technologies
eTransform Africa is a publication geared specifically to identify best practice in the use of ICTs in key sectors of the broader African economy. This report is made possible by the combined efforts of the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and the African Union. Under the theme “Transformation-Ready”, the 2012 edition of this publication detailed innovative uses of ICTs in several sectors. A World Bank article highlighted the following examples:
- Agriculture: In Kenya, the Kilimo Salama scheme is providing crop insurance for farmers, using the M-PESA payment gateway, helping them to better manage natural hazards such as drought or excessive rainfall.
- Climate Change Adaptation: In Malawi, a deforestation project is training local communities to map their villages using GPS devices and empowering them to develop localized adaptation strategies by engaging communities.
- Education, Financial Services: In Senegal, SONATEL (a subsidiary of Orange) is one of the latest operators on the continent to launch a money transfer service that is enabling 200,000 subscribers to send and receive money using mobile phones.
- Health: In Mali, telemedicine is helping overcome the lack of trained healthcare workers and specialists in rural areas, specifically the IKON Tele-radiology program
The eTransform Africa report noted the effectiveness of emerging technologies which are thriving in the African ICT arena. For instance, the use of dual SIM card cellular phones or using mobile technologies for banking is a particular growth area. Africa is now a bigger market for mobile subscriptions than either the United States or the European Union – since mobile technologies are highly effective in bypassing, for instance, hardline infrastructure shortages. The pace at which the African continent increases its access to mobile Internet has grown dramatically. By early 2013, some 750 million mobile phone subscriptions were in use, covering two thirds of all African adults. That increased access and depth of penetration has significant consequences for ICT implementation and utilisation across all sectors of the African economy. Governments play a crucial role in supporting this digital development, from funding the development of the broadband networks themselves, to addressing complex issues such as privacy and security in legislative frameworks and institutions.
Cesare Mainardi, the Chief Executive Officer at Booz & Company, offers insight into the role of government support for emerging technologies and innovative implementation of ICTs. In the foreword of the Global Information Technology Report Mainardi notes that: “… no universal prescriptions are available for realising the full socioeconomic benefits of digitization – the right formula will vary by country and industry. But there is no question that the benefits are there to be realized, and they are substantial for the foresighted and sure-footed.” Support for increasing ICT capabilities in African economies is vital to ensuring continued economic growth in those countries. That support must be carefully managed and facilitated by local governments as well as private businesses operating in the region.
For more, see:
- Kelly, T., ‘Africa: Using ICTs for transformational development’, blogs.worldbank.org, 16 January 2013. Available at http://blogs.worldbank.org/ic4d/africa-using-icts-for-transformational-development.
- ‘The Global Information Technology Report 2013 – Growth and Jobs in a Hyperconnected World’, World Economic Forum and INSEAD, 2013. Available at: http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GITR_Report_2013.pdf