Africa is lagging behind in the lucrative global digital economy, worth around $12tn globally. With the African Continental Free Trade Agreement in force, it is time to launch a continent-wide digital revolution to keep pace with the rest of the world. By Thierry Zomahoun
On 30 May 2019, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) officially came into force. Like most African leaders and a large proportion of informed observers, I remain convinced that the AfCFTA is an opportunity for the development and integration of our continent. A free trade area that includes nearly a billion consumers will surely prove to be a powerful driver of economic growth in the sectors that can ensure our continent emerges. One of these is the digital economy.
Africa is still lagging behind in this area. You might even think that Africa has resigned itself to sitting out this competition that is already shaping tomorrow’s world.
There is a digital re-colonisation looming over our continent. Perhaps you have heard about what we call ‘unicorns’. These are online micro-enterprises that started from nothing and built a stellar empire within a few years. Take note – of the 575 known unicorns across the world, only three of them came out of Africa.
This African lag can be explained by a number of factors, one of which is an inadequate infrastructure, not to mention the shortage of requisite skills. These are real challenges holding back the growth of innovation and the emergence of industries linked to new technologies. Such barriers ultimately prevent new areas of activity from being created on the continent.
The digital economy appears to be a determining factor in innovation. In the field of artificial intelligence, for example, where the global financial returns are expected to reach $15.7tn between now and 2030, few African examples are showing the transformative potential associated with new technologies.
In this context, what sort of framework does Africa need to put in place in order to reap the benefits of technological innovation, which could bring in revenues of over $6tn between now and 2025?
In my opinion, a digital AfCFTA has become a necessity for Africa, similar to the one we have for trade. A digital roadmap like this will surely be less complicated to implement, as it does not require as many negotiations to draw up an outline. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – all of the stages necessary and the benefits they can bring have been clearly identified.
A pan-African roadmap
At the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), our main focus has been launching Africa into the scientific and digital universe. Instead of being content to leave things to fate, we are trying a wide variety of solutions.
This has been the crucial focus of the Next Einstein Forum (NEF) – originally due to be held in Nairobi in March, now postponed – for over 18 months. Discussions with industry sectors, both public and private, have shown that Africa simply doesn’t have the framework for cooperation in innovation that it needs in order to accelerate and reap the benefits of the digital economy.
Starting from the principle that education should be seen as a value chain requiring distinct interventions at each level, the NEF has established a plan to enable Africa to harness the potential that the digital economy offers.
It is a pan-African roadmap for the digital economy that identifies the future needs of the industry, short and medium term, in its various value chains.
We believe that first of all, a basic digital infrastructure must be developed that meets the needs of the type of economy that will emerge and be in place in the future.
Also, new training methods should be established that enable young people to equip themselves with the required skills and to create new value chains and business sectors.
Another essential area we’ve long been interested in is financing. This is because we know that the process of converting laboratory-made solutions into products that can be sold all over Africa requires an astronomical investment – we’re talking billions of dollars.
Making this a reality requires new partnerships, especially between public and private sector entities, and the creation of innovative financing instruments.
The NEF feels it is necessary to urgently identify the priority areas we need to focus on. In the here and now, we have to concentrate our efforts on artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and cloud computing. In the medium term, we must boost sectors such as 3D printing to enable all the relevant stakeholders to mobilise their resources and develop joint strategies that meet the continent’s needs.
If these measures are applied coherently, we are convinced that they are enough to accelerate Africa’s economic transformation, in which the NEF and AIMS are already taking a very active part.
With some 1,900 alumni already applying mathematics to key sectors of the African economy, AIMS seeks to train Africa’s scientific elites through very high-level programmes of study in mathematics and artificial intelligence.
Our activities interest and attract the attention of the biggest actors of the digital sector worldwide. It would be a good time for African actors, too, to join this march toward the digital emergence of our continent.
As for the NEF, which is an AIMS initiative, its mission is to make science attractive to young people. We know that there is much left to do and the road is long to say the least. But we are already delighted that our programmes have achieved some successes, and we are very encouraged by these. One example is the Excellence Bursary, which rewards scientists at the top of their respective fields and helps to inspire others.
Scientific progress index
Another of our flagship initiatives is African Science Week, which is held in over 30 countries and highlights the ways in which scientists influence the continent’s economic emergence. We also publish the Scientific African Magazine, which gives the wider public a more precise idea of the substantial and beneficial effects of science in the landscape of numerous countries.
We are soon hoping to launch an Index of Progress in Science and Innovation on the continent, in order to measure the key elements of success in these domains. For AIMS, all of these initiatives and programmes of action are ways of creating an environment conducive to boosting innovation in Africa, and thus, helping to speed up its economic transformation.