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Africa’s Digital Transformation: Hype or Reality?

The 2019 Annual Adebayo Adedeji Lecture on the theme, “Digital Transformation of Africa: Hype or Reality”, was delivered by Dr. Omobola Johnson, Former Minister of Communication Technology, Federal Republic of Nigeria and Board Member of the Web Foundation.

Although a lot has been written in the popular press about Africa’s digital transformation, not a great deal is known about how much of that is just hype and how much of it is reality. The objective of the 2019 Adebayo Adedeji Memorial Lecture was to raise issues that will help policymakers to disentangle the hype from reality for them to make evidence-based and reality-informed policy choices and decisions.

Mr. Johnson explained that digital transformation is not just technical but strategic policies as well that can condition the economy of our continent. The role of governments to set the vision and define policies is paramount for any digital transformation to occur.

“To have an enabling environment where digital transformation can be effective countries need to collaborate, bring all African countries to the table and regional integration to open up and play the game differently in a digital world”. She added.

The lecture had two main discussants, Amel Saidane, Member of the Advisory Board, ECA Morocco, Digital ID and Digital Economy Initiative and Tawanda Sibanda, Partner, McKinsey, South Africa.

Ms. Saidane complimented the main lecture by giving an overview of the present digital environment.  “The main players today with commercial digital platforms is the United States and China, their aim and goal is to lock the customer so that they become dependent on their market, US platforms can enter African markets but not vis versa”. It is difficult for Africa to own their own platforms, they will only be users of American or Chinese platforms. To build their own platforms African start-ups must come up with initiatives to compete on a global level. This will be difficult and almost impossible if there are no change in policies by African governments”. She said.

South Africa respondents Sibanda gave history of the evolution of the digital market in Africa. “Since 2013, over 200 million people entered the work force in the digital field. There has been massive increase in smart phones, social accounts have grown from 50 to 100 million.

However, despite these figures he advised that, “Africa is not there yet, the digital agenda cannot progress if the social dimension is not tackled: Infant mortality is high, lack of access to education and other social indicators are still very low”. Finally, but not the least, education is a key. The African population must own its digital transformation to go to the next step.

The Lecture opened dialogue, identified action areas, and proposed tangible consideration for policymakers. It was also a way to increase awareness among African policymakers of the promise and perils of the digital economy and promote high-level dialogue on these issues.

The lecture was closed by the ECA Deputy Executive Secretary, Ms. Giovanie Biha who told the participants to remember that the success of recent continental initiatives, such as the African Continental Free Trade Area, Boosting Intra-African Trade and the Single African Air Transport Market, will depend on digital tools and skills.

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