Digital Transformation, the African way: closing the digital divide

By Professor Randall Carolissen, Dean, Johannesburg Business School, University of Johannesburg

The African continent is at a crossroads. Globally, technology has become pervasive and is used to make exponential leaps across all aspects of life. Yet, Africa continues to lag when it comes to digital transformation and the concept of digital economies.

But we cannot stand back from this. There is too much at stake. The digital divide between countries on the continent and the rest of the world will continue to increase. Africa will continue to be the continent that is seen as solely useful for extracting raw materials. And, gradually, African countries will stagnate.

The digital state of the continent

To ensure that Africans take greater advantage of technological advancements, it is important to understand the continent’s structural and social issues. Firstly, African economies are fragile, which is most evident when there is a global crisis. African countries often suffer disproportionately.

Secondly, the sovereign debt of many African countries puts them in a place where they cannot invest in infrastructure, which is a significant hindrance to how to take advantage of technology. Without infrastructural development, especially beyond urban areas, it becomes challenging to bring technology to the people.

Another limitation is the distance between mobile phone penetration, which is high, although primarily in urban areas, and the actual use of mobile phones. According to the 2020 State of the ICT Sector report, South Africa’s smartphone penetration was 91.2% in 2019. This is misleading because many may have mobile phones, but don’t necessarily connect to the internet.

Instead of using these devices to disseminate knowledge or access new ideas and thinking on the internet, people use the phone for talking and messaging. This may be due, in part, to the roll-on effect of limited infrastructure, namely higher than normal data costs and insufficient bandwidth.

What Africa brings to the table

Africa’s challenges provide exciting opportunities to roll out digital solutions in a way that advances and shifts the continent’s paradigm beyond simply trying to fill all the infrastructure gaps.

The continent has a great deal to offer through indigenous knowledge systems and developing digital solutions for sectors like agriculture. We need to leverage and take advantage of our rich endowments across the continent and, in the process, disseminate these to the rest of the world on our terms.

For example, in agriculture, Africa has shown how agricultural practices can be made more efficient by applying the right solution to the right geographic location at the right time using drone technology.

In addition, with the high mobile penetration, the banking sector, internationally and on the continent, has been looking at how to use technology to make transacting easier. MPESA, which started in Kenya and has spread to other countries on the continent, serves as an African model that can be replicated in other parts of the world.

Furthermore, with Africa poised to become a free trade area with the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, trade across borders and the future role of borders create even greater opportunities, including a possible increase in revenues generated.

At the heart of this is Africa’s people, who are the continent’s biggest asset. It is imperative to look at how we educate people using technology while ensuring they are in the best position to leverage the rich endowment mentioned earlier.

Building leaders that are fit for the future

According to the World Economic Forum, one-third of current jobs will disappear by 2030. At the same time, Africa’s youth demographic is the second highest globally after Asia. Add to this how the future of work will be totally different from what we are used to, and there is no room for debate.

To harness this youth dividend, we are compelled to train people differently and make our continent more digitally literate. We are obliged to make sure that we embed technology into the way we live and leverage technology, or we won’t be able to interface effectively with the rest of the world.

We need to train leaders who are fit for the future. We need imaginative leaders who combine analytics with design and creativity and use both sides of their brains. And this needs to happen earlier than at a tertiary level. I constantly ask myself how we prepare our kids and develop their brains optimally so that when they get to university, they can indeed become these innovative, forward-looking, curious, productive, and visionary citizens who we further upskill and release into the world?

We must look at our school systems critically because you can only develop your brain if you stretch it at a young age.

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