The human cost of COVID-19 throughout Africa is not yet known. Currently, there are new variations spreading throughout the continent that is contributing to the number of deaths and cases in many of its countries.
Around 40 African countries are now in the midst of a second wave, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control (CDC). This includes every country in South Africa, which is a result of the main new variant identified at the end of 2020. The World Health Organisation (WHO) have said this has contributed to the record high numbers of cases in southern regions of Africa.
The variant has also been recorded in Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia, Kenya, Ghana and Botswana, among others. When the dust finally settles and we can analyse the human cost of the virus in Africa, we will find it is significant. And for most African people, the long-term socio-economic impact of the pandemic will be at least as important as the virus itself. So, how does the continent recover from such challenging times? Well, we know for sure that digitising Africa will play a key role in this recovery.
Why does the key to economic recovery lie in digitising Africa?
Africa will experience the first economic recession in a quarter of a century, directly because of COVID-19. The pandemic is putting decades of poverty alleviation progress at risk, according to the United Nations (UN). A report from the UN published in April 2020, shows that the global poverty rate is rising for the first time in three decades.
So, where will recovery stem from for Africa? There is no one magic answer to get the continent’s economies back on their feet, but we do know that digitisation will play a key part of the recovery. The post-COVID future for the entire world will be led by digitisation, and it’s no different for Africa.
Early on in the pandemic, there were already major signs that the need for urgent digitisation was recognised by key decision makers. For example, the President of Kenya immediately encourage the private sector to work on ways to expand mobile money. The need to shift transactions online across Africa became a catalyst for digitisation.
According to a Tweet from Amani Abou-Zeid, the African Union Commissioner, the crisis “has moved digitisation from a niche market to mass adoption.” However, much more must be done to fully digitise and connect people in Africa.
Data from UNESCO shows that a significant proportion of students in Sub Saharan Africa still have no Internet access. Online retail also lags behind other developing countries, although it is increasing.
More investment and collaboration is urgently needed
There is no doubt that digitisation in Africa is absolutely urgently needed. However, its development is under threat due to a lack of investment. The UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development says that Africa needs an extra US$109 billion worth of investment to achieve accessible, affordable and high-quality Internet access by 2030.
Currently, one of the largest investors in the telecommunications infrastructure in Africa is Vodafone. And they spend only US1 billion every year to upgrade networks across the continent. Further UN data shows that a disturbing amount of capital has left developing markets since the pandemic started. They say that around US$100 billion in capital has disappeared from Africa.
Obviously, Governments are also freezing investment and tightening budgets as they try to contain the virus and respond to people’s immediate needs to access food and healthcare.
Collectively, these challenges could stall progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number nine, which is to provide affordable and universal access to the Internet in Africa. This inequality in accessing connectivity and digital tools has been exacerbated and highlighted by COVID-19. And it’s unlikely to improve as Africa moves into a recession.
Learning from the pandemic and applying it to the future
So, what can be done? How can Africa ensure that the momentum is not lost in the shift towards digitising the continent? It’s vital that Africa continues to learn from the impact of COVID-19 and use these learnings to create a more sustainable society.
Digitisation is the key to forming this more inclusive and resilient society that could feasibly withstand future crises. The way towards digitising Africa must include the following actions. It will need financing from the Government, from overseas investors, the international community and development partners and a cohesive effort.
- The digital divide must be bridged
The most effective way to redress imbalances and inequalities is to ensure that broad digitisation takes place. This means everyone should be connected and able to access services online, including those struggling the most.
Digitising the entire population of Africa will ignite the economy and provide an infrastructure for sustainable growth. Data about Africa analysed by the International Telecomms Union (ITU) shows that ensuring that just 10% more people in Africa are connected with mobile broadband will mean an increase of 2.5% in gross domestic product (GDP) per head.
Many of the pre-COVID investment models for digitising Africa omitted very remote and rural areas. The high costs of connecting these regions and the relatively low returns on capital meant that they were simply skipped. The international community must now unlock the necessary financing to create and deploy new investment for digital infrastructure improvement in Africa.
Innovations and experimental technology should be part of this mix. There are lots of projects underway utilising financing partnerships between the Governments involved and mobile operators.
- More investment is needed for digital skills and inclusion
Around half a billion of the people in Africa who have access to mobile broadband coverage still aren’t using it. There are more barriers than the infrastructure provision and network coverage. People need to be given opportunities to learn and understand this technology and how they can use it to improve their lives.
One of the biggest barriers to entrepreneurship in developing countries is the relatively low levels of digital skills. And this must change through investing in developing broad-based skills in this area to properly utilise the connectivity that is there.
Governments have a duty to integrate digital skills into the curriculum and ensure that there are realistic ways to disseminate the information people need in order to utilise the tech. Businesses and community organisations should also provide learning for life on the topics that will improve people’s professional and personal lives.
- Public services must be digitised on a massive scale
A number of African Governments have been driving innovation in digitising public services. However, very few are working at the scale necessary to make a difference. COVID-19 has accelerated various initiatives, particularly regarding healthcare and education.
But this needs to continue after the pandemic. There should be partnerships between public sectors and private bodies to establish these changes at a massive scale. Of course, this also needs financing from overseas as well as domestic investors. By committing to the provision of high-quality digital health, education and financial services, Africa is cementing its future as a digital society.
- More focus must go on small businesses
Small businesses that have been able to diversify digitally have proven more resilient during COVID-19. However, the many small and medium sized enterprises (SME) who couldn’t are going to have to try and catch up. This is despite the fact that pandemic is still ongoing and economic conditions are deteriorating.
African Governments must leverage existing technology and facilitate the development of new tech that is specifically designed for SMEs and for micro-businesses and sole traders. Mobile money is an area that has truly taken off in Africa and made good headway and is a great example of the kinds of technology that can give businesses the tools they desperately need to get ahead.