One interesting theme took centre stage during panel discussions at the recently concluded World Economic Forum on Africa in Rwanda; that what the continent needs as much as roads, dams, power plants (although there is still more development required) is a way to embrace technology and infuse digital transformation in all sectors.
It was interesting because when questions such as “how can we diversify our economies” and “how can we improve efficiency” or “how do we prepare our young generations to have jobs” were asked, the answer from a lot of different players including politicians, think tanks, investment organisations and the private sector was the same; embrace the “3rd industrial revolution”; the digital transformation revolution.
With a 350 million strong middle and upper class currently expected to jump to 430 million by 2020, in a 1.3 billion continent by that time, the private and public sector strongly concurred that technology will have a significant impact in modernizing African governments’ in effect creating what I call the next-generation governments.
It’s encouraging that this revolution is already being stirred in small offices and houses across Africa that have wholly embraced mobile communications. Thanks to Kenya’s pioneering M-Pesa, Africa is leading the mobile money revolution and this has already had a noticeable impact on the continent in expanding financial inclusivity.
But mobile technology alone is not enough.
The next logical step should be to harness technology for industrialisation, agriculture and social transformation. The world is entering one of the most exciting eras of technology. Everyday objects are becoming part of an integrated system of smart devices that are changing the way we live. Opportunities are endless in smart energy power grids, smart cities, smart agriculture, building secure government services and developing a vibrant globally competitive technology industry. Beyond getting more people connected to the internet, making things smart and connected in Africa will allow governments to create opportunities that enhance productivity, improve service delivery, support real-time decision making, solve critical societal problems, and deliver innovative user experiences. These opportunities have the ability to fuel GDP, create new jobs, and boost economies.
I was encouraged to see that the political will to use ICT for economic and social growth abounds in Africa. For instance, over the last decade, Kenya has experienced substantial growth in the ICT sector that is now worth Sh138 billion in GDP. In addition, Kenya’s public service outlets, Huduma Centres, anchored on e-government, have increased efficiency and even won Kenya a United Nations award. The Rwanda government on the other hand saw a 20 percent increase in VAT collections from 2014 to 2015 after introducing e-fiscal devices while the Nigerian government saved more than $1B through the introduction of digital IDs for public servants.
As governments continue to use ICT, they will gather a lot of data and in the modern world, data is the new oil. The next big thing after the big thing will be for governments to analyse this data, which will then help in detecting trends, increasing efficiency, reducing costing and, as it were, opening new business opportunities in transportation, power supply, agriculture, social welfare or even security provision. The private sector is ready to help governments digitise operations. Indeed, there are already efforts towards this. Smart Africa, African Development Bank and Intel Corporation, for instance, are finalising a Digital Government Blueprint. This is a framework that will provide guidance and systematic steps for governments to tap the power of ICT and build digital infrastructure that will help transform how they operate and delivers service to their citizens.
With such a blueprint, there is no room for guess work. It will enable governments to develop a National ICT policy aligned to the national priorities of the country and provide a measurable plan to enable everyone to participate in the digital economy and reap its benefits.
The best starting point is automating internal government, whether external services or internal operations. Second is developing an electronic ID system at the national level, which provides the foundation for securing identities, protecting privacy, and enabling trusted e-services.
The other critical area thing is having an interactive government portal with open application programme interface (API). Here, a government can partner with private sector to develop additional secure services through an open API. The government should then create cashless societies through digital payments to reduce the cost of doing business and increase revenues by having visibility of all transactions. The Nairobi County Government in Kenya has successfully digitised payments for parking and licences. This has not only increased collections, but also reduced physical interactions that encourage corruption.
Last but not least are e-government services like e-tax, licenses and registrations, e-parking, smart city services, digital signatures, and more. The e-government portal will provide high quality, timely and accurate data and services in a secure yet transparent and accountable manner.
It was not surprising that the recent AfDB annual general meeting in Lusaka would also amplify ICT. In fact, Africa Development Bank and World Bank Africa have changed their priorities into transformation through ICT, as a catalyst of economic growth, sustainability and equality and created special funds to invest in the digital transformation of Africa.
AfDB announced a $5 billion fund focused on opening opportunities for 50 million young people in Africa through skills development and job creation in Agriculture, Industry and ICT sectors. With the current political goodwill, I believe a smart Africa can be achieved by harnessing the ICT revolution.