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Preparing for a knowledge economy in Africa

African youth speaks

Preparing for a knowledge economy in Africa

To catch up with the world’s technological advances, Africa’s education system needs to promote science and technology studies and, specifically, hands-on training to spur innovation, says guest editor Amandine Ndikumasabo.

In the last decades, Africa has steadily been witnessing development in various sectors in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were set by UN Member States in 2015.

In striving to achieve the SDGs, technology has been a major ally enabling innovations, revolutionising trade and socio-economic activity, education, health, industry, and many more sectors.

Technology – the application of scientific knowledge to the practical aims of human life – has been an enabling force in human development, helping to solve myriad existential problems.

One of the latest marvels is the power unleashed by digital technology, as it has virtually revolutionised both private and commercial day-to-day life.

Given the need for social distancing and lockdowns to contain the spread of Covid-19, digital technology has facilitated the continuation of work, education, domestic and cross-border trade, healthcare services, communication. But it has also exposed a yawning ‘digital divide’ in Africa.

With millions across the continent unable to connect to the internet, the offline world has been left economically and socially in isolation. Yarik Turianski (2020) examined factors that are relevant to the digital divide in the African context.

They include people not being able to afford the right technology (preferably both a laptop and a smartphone) or internet access (high speed internet). According to GSMA, the mobile network operators’ body, approximately 75% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa have a mobile connection but only 25% use a smartphone.

In 2019, those in 10 out of 45 African countries tracked by Alliance for Affordable Internet could pay for internet connectivity at a competitive rate – with 1GB of mobile prepaid data available at a cost of 2% or less of average monthly income.

Internet World Stats reveal that at the end of 2019, Africa had an internet penetration rate of 39.3 – the lowest rate compared to other continents.

Internet shutdowns are also another factor worsening the digital divide. In 2019, they cost African economies $2bn.

Universal internet access

In 2020, the African Union adopted the Digital Transformation Strategy – aimed at erasing the digital divide and ensuring internet access for every person on the continent by 2030.

In South Africa, MTN and Vodacom have cut their mobile data prices by 20-50%. Both service providers have also introduced zero-cost learning sites that are used by the public. Many fibre internet service providers have also upgraded the speed of customers’ lines and provide extensive learning content.

A knowledge economy is one where prosperity largely depends on the accessibility, quality and quantity of information available to the public. In this regard, the World Bank’s Knowledge Economy Index highlights four pillars: a dynamic information infrastructure, education (for people to make the best use of knowledge), a supportive regulatory and economic environment (for example, for the development of ICT), and creative innovation systems.

Many African economies are embracing the use of ICT in service delivery, in promoting quality education and in boosting economic activities, positioning them to embrace the fourth industrial revolution.

The fourth industrial revolution is expected to bring about change in the cost of transacting, the potential for economies of scale and market competition, and the speed of innovation.

To catch up with the world’s technological advances, Africa’s education system needs to promote science and technology studies, and especially, hands-on training to spur innovations and the use of technological skills at all levels.

The Rwandan experience

Embracing technology-driven development is what Rwanda has set out to achieve in the near future. It could be a catalyst for accelerating transformational change.

According to the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda (NISR), in 2010/2011, 79.6% of households had at least one mobile phone, up from 33.2% in 2005/2006; a growth rate of 46.4% in only five years.

In late 2019, Rwanda launched the Connect Rwanda mutual assistance initiative, which intends to have every family connected with a smartphone. 

IremboGov is a government services platform that has created access for over 8m Rwandans and foreigners to over 120 public services online, through a 4,000+ agent network across Rwanda.

Since 2016, Rwanda has been using drones to distribute blood all over the country, especially in rural places. It is a project made possible by collaboration with the American company Zipline.

The Rwandan government has used technology to promote quality education for several years. With strong support from President Kagame, the campaign began with the ‘One Laptop per Child’ initiative, which committed to providing each of Rwanda’s 2m primary school children with their own laptop. The initiative, still being rolled out, also includes the training of teachers and students on using the devices.

The next step has been the Smart Class Rwanda initiative, which operates and manages an online learning platform and aims to connect all Rwandan high school students learning similar academic subjects. It provides them with access to key learning materials and high-quality teachers. According to the Rwanda Education Board (REB), the deployment plan will target all teachers from all schools countrywide.

Applications in agriculture and industry

Agriculture, industry and trade are also important sectors that are enjoying the use of technology in Rwanda. Mechanised agriculture practices are being coupled with modern farming practices operated under controlled conditions in greenhouses, for example.

Equally for industry and trade, the traditional manufacture of products is being revamped through the use of automated or semi-automated processes, and cross-border trade has been modernised by the use of the Rwanda Electronic Single Window (ReSW).

It is a centralised system creating an interface for all the services related to cross-border trade, and designed to eliminate tariff and non-tariff barriers. Through this system, importers and exporters are able to monitor the shipping progress of their goods.

As technology permeates and is being used across Africa to achieve sustainable development, it is imperative for all countries to embrace technology in all socio-economic contexts and build knowledge economies. This calls for the correction of existing inefficiencies and bringing about novel technologies to achieve Africa 2030 and the Africa 2060 vision. 

Read our special report African Youth Speaks.

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