Tuesday, January 17, 2023
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CommentaryAfrica's Dilemma: Bridging Digital Divides and Governance

Africa’s Dilemma: Bridging Digital Divides and Governance

In an effort to increase the efficiency of public administration and bring the government closer to the people, the majority of African countries have already started the process of digitizing their public services. Digital transformation, or the broad use of digital technologies to improve company processes, government operations, and consumer experiences, is taking place all over the world, including in Africa.

The continent has a poor level of digital penetration and preparedness. Despite the fact that the challenges are similar to those in other sectors, several African governments have yet to adopt a digital policy or plan, even while the gap between developed and developing countries widens. This is mostly due to a lack of investment in the continent’s ICT infrastructure, which includes internet service providers.

Africa is currently at the bottom of the ICT ladder, which has serious implications for the continent and the rest of the world. This pattern is primarily due to the fact that countries with more sophisticated ICT infrastructures have more robust economies than those with less developed infrastructures. As a result, the development gap between Africa and the developed world is widening.

Many countries’ digital ambitions are specified in their national development plans, whereas others have more detailed documentation defining their digital strategies. Others still have rules and plans in place for very specific areas like e-commerce, cybersecurity, digital privacy, and e-government, among others.

On the bright side, digital platforms and e-commerce are already taking over the African continent, albeit at a slower rate than the rest of the world. The increased use of technology and its accompanying process of digitization are potential engines of economic growth, particularly with the creation of digital jobs for Africa’s vast youth population.

Some governments have already started to take advantage of these opportunities by passing laws and putting in place digital policies at the national level to speed up the digital transformation of different industries.

African political and commercial leaders may help their people make the digital shift by actively participating in activities like capacity building and increasing awareness. Africa has seen the highest growth in mobile subscribers and is the world leader in the use of mobile phones for money transfers and other critical services, according to some research. This should continue and be regarded as a positive trend.

To get the full benefits of the digital economy, Africa must move beyond basic connectivity and into digital interconnectivity. These driving forces allow for the expansion of continental-scale applications and services.

The digital transformation of Africa’s ICT industry will provide valuable insights into the necessary competences and the challenges to overcome in digital transformation. Still, the question of who owns the technology and who is responsible for its development is the most important part of Africa’s digital transformation.

Instead of mimicking digitalization in other regions of the world, African nations must consider their unique circumstances and develop a localized version of digitalization.

Addressing the challenges facing small farmers and pastoralist communities is part of this plan.

Among the many concerns that African countries should address collaboratively is ensuring that their citizens have inexpensive internet access and greater digital literacy. It is critical that everyone has access to digital services in order for the economy to flourish and the country to remain competitive on both domestic and international markets.

Approaches to digitalizing public services that are fragmented and lack a unified plan at the highest levels of government are a recipe for inefficiency.

Investing in interoperability, developing legislative frameworks for data protection, and placing users’ requirements at the center of service design are all critical steps in ensuring that digital services are human-centered and meet people’s needs.

Electricity, broadband internet, hardware, and software, as well as a technologically savvy population, are all critical to the development and success of digitalization. In regions where the government cannot address the plan, institutions in charge of implementing it may develop partnerships with the private sector and citizens prepared to deliver services on the government’s behalf. That is what we mean when we say “public-private collaboration” (PPP).

Examining Africa’s digital readiness on a regular basis and finding hurdles to overcome is helpful in making improvements. The viability of e-government and e-commerce programs is dependent on addressing African countries’ connection, digital capabilities, and absence of underlying legislation.

What role can digitalization play in overcoming Africa’s trade hurdles?

There is a trade deficit on the African continent, and we must consider how digital technology might help lower this deficit and improve access to markets, particularly for small firms, which comprise the vast majority of companies in the majority of African countries.

How can the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) be used to improve a digital payment system and track and remove non-tariff barriers? For these objectives to be met, there must be adequate digital connectivity.

Digitalization optimizes trade and commercial operations, lowering expenses, and digital technology has the potential to lower traditional distribution channel transaction costs such as search, language, and logistics coordination. Digitalizing customs processes and procedures can reduce supplier demurrage fees by eliminating regulatory inefficiencies and speeding export transit and clearance.

More crucially, boosting the continent’s digital sector is critical for economic integration and may aid in the resolution of long-standing structural trade barriers while ensuring that the AfCFTA’s advantages are distributed fairly.

Digital platforms have been especially effective in connecting potential buyers and sellers across numerous jurisdictions and minimizing onerous processes in the value chain, allowing for faster and more accessible information flow and improved participation in the global supply chain. By sharing this information digitally, people in the market can learn more about what customers want and have better access to information about rules and standards.

Digital technology could help people who are already struggling, like those who work in the informal economy or live in rural areas, grow their businesses and offer better services to Africa’s growing middle class.

Digitalization could also make it easier for small export businesses to use fintech financing, crowdfunding, and other flexible ways to get money and pay for things. This would allow them to grow and serve more customers.

E-commerce systems allow for a reduced-cost internet presence as well as a faster track record of growth. If all other variables remain constant, Africa should approach “digital capitalism” through a different lens, focusing on ownership, equity, and competency.

The digital revolution is a “two-edged sword” in that it simplifies living while also threatening human labor, which was formerly subordinate to the industrial system. Digital capitalism poses a fundamental threat to the commoditization of human labor, lowering the value of human intelligence. It splits the workforce, lowers social standards, deteriorates working conditions, and widens power disparities between developed and developing countries.

Broader Societal Benefits of Digital Transformation

There is a concerted effort to make sure that the public sector, civil society, academia, and business all work together to improve processes and technologies. But there is still a lot of work to do to integrate people, processes, and technology. This is important for the ongoing digital transformation effort to be successful.

As automation improves, the public sector, civil society, academic institutions, and business processes in any ecosystem speed up and become more transparent and streamlined.

Adoption of new technology was also considered a critical component of digital transformation. However, the importance of technology was the most popular response, and people’s contributions were undervalued.

Several studies on people’s attitudes toward technology found that many see it as a potential replacement for humans rather than a tool to help them achieve their goals. This point of view can only be changed by structural changes in digital transformation, which show how policy frameworks, organizational structures, and skills can be shaped.

Despite the fact that technology and automation are having a significant impact on the replacement of human intervention, this generation should perceive business differently and seek out new employment and business prospects.

Understanding the value of data and AU initiatives

All things considered, the Malabo AU Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection is a comprehensive instrument that member countries should recognize and implement.

African countries and the continent may encounter challenges due to a lack of access to “large data centers” or autonomous ICT infrastructure. In China, for example, Baidu, the Chinese search engine, is larger than Google. Instead of YouTube, there’s Youku. Taobao serves as an alternative to eBay, and RenRen serves as an equivalent to Facebook. China has Weibo in place of Twitter.

To encourage the use of domestic alternatives, China has banned YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Rather than restricting established Western platforms, I advise developing alternative ICT products. The Chinese people are extremely proud of their home-grown enterprises and consistently support them.

African countries must raise their awareness of economic challenges. When it comes to the economies of most African countries, every dollar counts. It is in Africans’ best interests to support African manufacturers and brands whenever possible.

If people on the African continent produce, consume, and trade within the continent, Africa will gain more economic control.

The way forward!

To achieve outcomes in sustainable development on the African continent, successful regional and continent-wide or interoperable digitization is required. If the government’s digitalization fails in this hypothetical scenario, reaching the continental target will be difficult.

As a result, short-term regional digitization initiatives should focus on developing uniform regional standards and facilitating, supporting, and enabling national digitalization triumphs.

Connecting national systems to regional networks would result in a strong and competitive platform that would protect Africa and its population while also providing an alternate answer. Otherwise, Africa will stay besieged and controlled by the Western capitalist sector. Increased cross-border economic activity on the African continent will encourage cross-border data interchange.

To boost the African digital economy’s competitiveness and maximize the AfCFTA’s potential, governments, non-state actors, and development institutions should work together to ensure the swift implementation and enforcement of data governance policies and laws that guarantee trust and transparency and increase digital inclusion.

Aside from ensuring the security of data flows, it is critical to provide the soft and hard infrastructure required for a flourishing digital economy in Africa. The creation of such a solution is entirely dependent on improving access to digital technologies.

When regulations make it easier for the private sector to invest, government investment in ICT infrastructure rises, and more people need to use the internet for ICT to fulfill its full potential.

(Seife Tadelle Kidane (PhD) is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Pan African Thought and Conversation (IPATC); Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Johannesburg.)

Contributed by Seife Tadelle Kidane (PhD)

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