Bridging Africa’s digital divide

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Nnenna Nwabufo

BY DAVID WANJALA

All but six African countries, according to the United Nations’ E-Government survey 2018, fall in the lower tiers (medium and low) level of E-government development. The six best performing countries are Mauritius, ranked globally at 66, South Africa at 68, Tunisia at 80, Seychelles 83, Ghana 101 and Morocco 110.

There have been improvements in some African countries regarding the E-Government Development Index (EGDI) resulting in at least 12 of them, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gambia, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique and Sierra Leone transitioning from the low to the Medium. Ghana is the only country that transitioned from the Medium to High EGDI.

Ms Nnenna Nwabufo, deputy director general Eastern African regional office African Development Bank Group made the revelations while opening the East and Central Africa region Conference on Digital Economy and E-Government: Bridging the Digital Divide in Nairobi, Kenya last month.

The statistics, she said, highlight the important role that has to be given to infrastructure development particularly on Information, Communication Technologies (ICT) in service provision by the governments.

“As of December 2017 internet penetration in Africa was about 35.2 percent compared to a world average of 54.4 percent. This may not seem to be a bad performance considering the immense challenges faced by some African countries, however, factoring in the expected huge population increase, more needs to be done,” said Ms Nwabufo adding that during the period, 2000 – 2017, countries experienced different levels of internet penetration, some as low as 1.4 percent (Eritrea) and as high as 85 percent (Kenya).

This was the fourth conference in Africa by the African Development Bank under the auspices of the Korea Africa Economic Cooperation (KOAFEC) and Korea Knowledge Sharing Program. The other three were held in Mali for West Africa in December 2011, Lesotho for SADC countries in November 2012 and in Algeria for North Africa in October 2013.

The conference targeted senior officials at principal secretary or director level in ministries of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT); Interior or Home Affairs; and National Communications Authorities and regulatory agencies who are in positions to influence policy making process.

It aimed at sensitizing participants on ICT based quality solutions focusing mainly on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and its impact on the future of work in Africa; big data in action for governments; digital identity and its applications; and block chain for development and more so on learning ways of leveraging on technology; digital economy for regional integration; government workspace modernization; data protection and regulation; and smart factories.

The deputy director general also emphasised on the need for African governments to digitise services to meet Africa’s challenges of variant growth rates and youth unemployment.

“We should not be complacent as African countries continue to exhibit variant growth rates. For instance, the 2018 regional growth rates were estimated at 5.7 percent for East Africa, North Africa at 4.9 percent, West Africa at 3.3 percent, Central Africa at 2.2 percent and Southern Africa 1.2 percent. It is therefore imperative that we ensure that this growth is sustainable and inclusive as most African countries continue to have high rates of unemployment with youth unemployment remaining particularly high in most countries.”

Africa’s population, she said, is expected to double in the next 50 years thus exerting pressure on the existing infrastructure and governments’ ability to provide services. This would require a different way of doing things in order to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In this regard, African governments ought to employ a different modus operandi like digitising their services by harnessing latest technologies like E-Government.

Also present at the conference were Republic of Korea’s ambassador to Kenya, Yeonghan Choi and the vice president, Korea National Information Society Agency (NIA), a core statutory agency of national informatisation entrusted with providing policies and technical expertise.

Speaking at the conference, vice president of NIA, Dr Kang-tak Oh hailed East and Central Africa’s enormous potential to grow in ICT and digital economy.

“Learning about the digital economy and how to bridge the digital divide in the 4th industrial revolution era will help Africa build more feasible and effective policies and further close the digital gap,” he said.

NIA has been on the forefront in the efforts to improve Africa’s ICT infrastructure especially in the form of fully equipped information access centres, which are also refurbished every four years at the expense of the Korean Government in various African countries including Egypt (2004), Tunisia (2005), Nigeria (2006), Kenya (2007), Mozambique (2008), Algeria and Morocco (2009), Rwanda (2010 & 2016), Ghana (2011), Ethiopia (2013), Uganda (2014) and Madagascar (2016).

Warning that the Fourth Industrial Revolution, characterised by emerging technological breakthroughs in a number of fields, including robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotechnology, the Internet of Things, the Industrial Internet of Things, decentralized consensus, fifth generation wireless technologies, additive manufacturing/3D printing, block-chain and fully autonomous vehicles is upon us, Ms Nwabufo challenged the African Continent to ensure that it is relevant in the revolution in terms of knowledge economy and implored participants in the three-day workshop to engage with the AfDB and Korean officials present to explore how their respective countries can reap the benefits of the partnership.