It has never occurred in Africa for people to remain indoors, work from home and limit human interactions as much as possible to curb the spread of disease.
Nearly 42 nations enacted partial or full lockdowns to limit the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), hence—this ushered rolling drums for other aspects of life to take form, particularly digitization of life.
Africa, a continent of more than 1.3 billion people, experienced the horror of the virus as massive volumes of trade and goods ceased to interact within the economy pool, forcing some communities to adopt other means of life, including being well versed with virtual meetings, online shopping, online learning and online working.
As Rwandan President Paul Kagame says, “…the pandemic is a test for us. The way we address it shows our level of preparedness against anything that attempts to disrupt our lives and our progress.” This proves the fact that Africa can curve sustainable resilience out of the pandemic.
Africa has been undergoing a serious shift in the digital landscape. According to a McKinsey report, Africa has the potential to elevate digital transformation, as it has demonstrated tangible progress over the past decade.
The rise of digital payment, e-commerce and digital solutions across West and East Africa is impressive. Nigeria has seen doubling revenue in e-commerce since 2010; Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania have marked billions in mobile money transactions since digital payments were annexed.
The connectivity is growing significantly. According to internet World Stats in 2019 internet penetration stood at 39.3 per cent; in June 2019, more people in Africa accessed the internet (525 million) than in Latin America (447), North America (328 million) or the Middle East (174 million).
The region has understood its way around digitization. The Digital Transformation Strategy (2020-2030) reads “by 2030 all our people should be digitally empowered and able to access safely and securely to at least (6 MB/s) all the time wherever they live in the continent at an affordable price of no more than (1cts US$ per MB) through a smart device manufactured in the continent at a price of no more than (100 US$) to benefit from all basic e-services and the content of which at least 30 per cent is developed and hosted in Africa”.
This objective plus many other national policies on ICT, stand to levitate crucial sectors of the economy, education, health, governance and business.
From the fintech solutions ushered into Kenya and Tanzania (M-shwari, M-Pawa), Kigali innovation city domesticating high-end tech, to drones delivering medicine in Rwanda and online shopping domesticated in Nigeria and Ghana, there is plenty of evidence the region has huge potential to expand.
Hence the pandemic has also brought to attention a vital element to explore — the digital divide, which is the state of uneven access or distribution of information and communication technologies (ICT) within communities.
This concept is crucial to the current development scene, where technology dictates largely or entirely the whole portion of sustaining anything, whether it is health, financial services or governance.
According to a 2018 report published by Brookings, digital expansion has sparked savings across East Africa.
“Currently there are over 20 million virtual savings accounts (one bank accounts for 18 million of these virtual savings accounts five years after the product was launched) that have been opened in the last five years compared to about 30 million deposit accounts in the banking sector,” the report argued.
There are several areas to enhance that—the pandemic bringing it out to be of paramount importance.
Filling the socio-economic gap
Wouldn’t it be great if most of the communities were able to afford and access decent ICT resources or have them at their disposal? This scenario is a challenge in most parts of the continent.
Purchasing a computer or even a basic internet package is still difficult for the vast majority of citizens who are also battling other insecurities, including food and shelter.
The virus made 1.5 billion learners who represent around 91 per cent of all enrolled learners adapt to new ways of learning, preferably digital, although most governments have enabled processes to make online learning a reality, a Brookings report on learning inequality paints a different picture of the developing world.
“Less than 25 per cent of low-income countries currently provide any type of remote learning, and of these, the majority are using TV and radio. In contrast, close to 90 per cent of high-income countries are providing remote learning opportunities, nearly all of which are provided online,” the report argues.
As nearly 120 million school children in Central and West Africa are stuck at home, workers are forced to find other jobs as they fail to keep up with work. These realities beg more attention.
Painting the situation with numbers, according to GSMA, a mobile operator trade body, approximately three-quarters of the population in sub-Saharan Africa – 747 million people – have mobile connection. However, only a third of these – 250 million – use a smartphone.
Further, in 2019, only 10 out of 45 African countries tracked by the Alliance for Affordable Internet were able to afford internet connectivity (defined as 1GB of mobile prepaid data costing 2 per cent or less of the average monthly income).
With the growth of other ICT and economy in regions such as East Africa and North Africa, affordability of gadgets and other ICT related resources become attainable, and with it, comfortable to most users.
Strengthening ICT infrastructure
By the end of 2019, the region had the lowest internet penetration figure in the world, standing at 39.3 per cent, with Asia being second-lowest at 53.6 per cent. Compare this to Europe and North America, with the highest penetration rates of 87.2 per cent and 94.6 per cent, respectively.
During the pandemic, those who were out of reach were certainly missing out on much of the action.
As the divide remains, the region has taken ICT structures as drivers of the economy. Vodacom and Tigo Tanzania (leading mobile operators) have been vital funders of startups embarking on domestic digital solutions.
In South Africa, as a response to the virus Vodacom and MTN cut their mobile data prices by up to 20 per cent.
There is an important role that policies play in shaping the entire process of digital transformation, wherein government and the private sector can work together to ensure affordable technologies are accessed, and knowledge and tech-know-how are spread to the uninitiated.
The virus made life harder for most people in the continent, however—technology also made life easier and simpler for a fraction of people who relied on virtual meeting platforms and computers to carry on with the daily ritual of working.
Through multi-stakeholder support, the region can enable sectors such as finance and insurance, health, trade, transportation, education and governance with robust digital functionality that is both inclusive and relevant to the working environment, simplifying life.