In an era where digital technologies are becoming the engines that drive economic growth, Africa stands at the precipice of a transformative period. The continent’s vast potential can be realized through the launch of the Digital Transformation with Africa Initiative (DTA) by the United States. Launched in December 2022, this innovative project holds the key to opening new markets and shaping African economies for years to come. This article will take you through the intricacies of this initiative and how it can be a game-changer in bridging Africa’s digital divide.
The Digital Transformation with Africa Initiative: An Overview
The DTA is a ground-breaking result of the U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa, unveiled in August 2022. It aligns perfectly with the African Union’s Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa, the continent’s ambitious blueprint for digitally fuelled socioeconomic development.
Backed by a robust financial commitment of over $800 million, the DTA aims to stimulate digital collaboration along three integral pillars—digital economy and infrastructure, human capital development, and an enabling environment. This broad-spectrum approach requires a comprehensive government engagement to ensure effective delivery.
However, to truly leverage the DTA’s potential and translate its ambitious mission into specific actions, a few targeted proposals should be considered. These recommendations aim to reduce the digital divide, spur Africa’s innovation ecosystem, and streamline geographical integration of digital services between the U.S. and African nations.
Targeted Actions for Transforming Digital Landscapes
The strategies laid out below take into account the diversity of the digital ecosystems in Africa, a continent home to more than fifty countries with an increasingly shared vision of using technology for socioeconomic development.
Proposal One: Bridging Africa’s Digital Divide
The first pillar of the DTA revolves around the digital economy and infrastructure. To make digital transformation truly inclusive, the focus should be on creating affordable, accessible, and reliable infrastructure. However, as of 2022, only 40 percent of the African population was online, as per estimates from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). This highlights the urgent need to bridge the world’s largest digital divide, affecting over 800 million people.
The DTA can effectively address this challenge by expanding national networks, improving and extending mobile networks, and promoting local manufacture of affordable smartphones.
Expanding Terrestrial Fibre Connectivity
Submarine cables such as Google’s Equiano, PEACE, and 2Africa cable have significantly expanded Africa’s first-mile connectivity. However, they rely heavily on the middle-mile infrastructure, like terrestrial network, to distribute internet across the countries.
The DTA could bolster the expansion of backbone networks, currently clustered around major cities, thus addressing the rural-urban digital divide. For example, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) recently supported Liberia’s CSquared to expand broadband infrastructure through a 350-kilometer open-access fibre backbone network. Similar efforts could be implemented in other countries through USAID’s Digital Invest program, which mobilizes private capital for digital infrastructure projects.
Upgrading and Expanding Mobile Networks for Last-Mile Connectivity
The last-mile connectivity, bringing internet to the end-user, is primarily served by mobile networks in Africa. However, much of the continent still relies heavily on older 2G and 3G networks, creating a digital divide that limits access to crucial e-services like online education and health.
The U.S. International Development Finance Corporation has recently provided $100 million in financing to Africell for expanding and upgrading mobile networks in The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This initiative could serve as a blueprint for the DTA, encouraging the upgrade of networks and expansion to other African countries with low mobile broadband penetration.
Promoting the Local Manufacture of Affordable Smartphones
Addressing the persistent usage gap in Africa calls for initiatives that ensure affordable device access. While the continent largely relies on imported mobile phones, attempts have been made by countries like Rwanda and South Africa to manufacture smartphones locally. The DTA could support these efforts, enabling African communities to effectively engage in the smartphone-manufacturing industry.
For instance, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) could fund feasibility studies on smartphone manufacturing in Africa. This would provide a deeper understanding of the economics of manufacturing affordable smartphones in the continent, drawing from past initiatives like Mara Phone. The studies should include a value chain diagnostic, offer recommendations on national and regional participation, and examine the leverage of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement to advance the continent’s industrialization process.
Proposal Two: Bolstering the African Innovation Ecosystem
This part of the document expounds on the second proposal, which advocates for a considerable boost to the African innovation ecosystem. This ecosystem is packed with potential, propelled by Africa’s youth and a staggering 640 tech hubs teeming with digital entrepreneurs. By focusing on cultivating innovation, it’s believed that we can develop unique solutions tailored to Africa’s specific needs, attract capital and, crucially, create jobs.
However, the proposal identifies a disparity among these innovation hubs, where the ones in urban centres are technologically advanced, while those in rural areas are under-equipped. There is a pressing need for initiatives like the DTA to extend their support to rural innovators, using models such as the USAID’s BRIDGE-Train program.
Moreover, it underscores the need for risk-tolerant financing options to help African innovators develop their ideas into successful businesses. The DTA should increase its impact by providing financing options through U.S. government resources and mobilizing U.S. private capital. Existing initiatives that the DTA can leverage include USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures, Exploratory Programs and Innovation Competitions, and the U.S. African Development Foundation.
Finally, the second proposal calls for a central platform, similar to Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), that will help consolidate U.S. government innovation initiatives and make them more visible to African innovators.
Proposal Three: Enhancing the Integration of Digital Services and Trade
The third proposal emphasizes the need for the DTA to champion policies that eradicate trade and other barriers, thereby enabling seamless geographical integration of digital services between the U.S. and Africa. The document points out that there is a widespread perception in Africa that U.S. companies are neglecting to extend their popular digital apps to the continent. This neglect, in turn, creates opportunities for Chinese apps to fill the void.
The proposal encourages the DTA to facilitate digital trade by involving the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and working with African nations to define, negotiate, and agree on terms for a more seamless integration of digital services.
In conclusion, the document hails the digital tech partnership as the cornerstone of the “seismic shift” happening in U.S.-Africa relations. It emphasizes the importance of continuous consultation among the U.S. government, African governments and citizens, the African diaspora, and the private sector. The proposals also underscore the necessity of co-designing and co-delivering programs with in-country African digital technology professionals to ensure ownership and sustainability.
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