Digital Development in Africa – What is Working and What Isn’t
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Information and Communication Technology (ICT) policies are a key driver of ‘digital development’ – the extent of integration of a country or region into the global digital world and digital economy. This is because communication, information flows, trade, business, education, finance, industry and even government are today inextricably founded in the digital world
The ‘digital divide’ refers to the gulf between developed and developing nations in terms of digital penetration in countries and regions. However, the digital divide does not only refer to the divide between regional aggregates and countries, but to the divide that is found within countries too. Several African countries have ‘dualistic’ economies, characterised by a modernised urban sector and poor and underdeveloped rural sector. This economic dualism extends as well to digital penetration, with urban areas covered by fixed and mobile broadband, while many rural areas have little to no connectivity at all. Today, Africa lags behind the global aggregate in terms of digital development and the digital divide, but its rate of improvement is such that it is converging to global aggregates at an admirable pace.
Two important indicators of progress with digital development are the prices of broadband and the extent of broadband penetration among the population. Regarding pricing, ITU data[i] shows that mobile broadband bundle prices have dropped more in Africa than in any of the other major regions (for the period 2012-2020). Not only that, but aggregate mobile broadband prices in Africa are absolutely lower (in US$) than for any of the other regions.
These falling prices for mobile broadband are associated with rapid uptake of mobile broadband services, with subscriptions growing over the 2010-2020 period at rates of 2690%, 906% and 209% for Africa, non-Africa developing and the developed country aggregates respectively. Africa has grown off a very low base however and ended the period with actual mobile broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants at only 63% of the figure for the rest of the developing world[ii]. This indicates that work still needs to be done to further extend digital inclusion in Africa, mostly now into rural areas. In addition, mobile broadband is not equivalent to fixed broadband (provision of fibre optic connectivity to workplaces and residences). The latter extends the utility derived from connectivity in that it opens up new forms of enterprising online activity such as for programming, content creation, knowledge services and web management.
This progress in advancing the accessibility of mobile broadband in many parts of Africa is attributable both to the investment and business activity of the private sector as well as the policy and regulatory environment created by the authorities. ICT policy has the goal of creating an environment conducive to investment, profitable economic activity, competition and competitively-priced services. The ITU has developed a way of measuring and scoring ICT regulatory performance via its policy regulatory tracker[iii]. Of interest is the fact that Africa and the rest of the developing world score almost exactly the same, with both country aggregates showing large improvements in their regulatory scores relative to the developed country aggregate. In addition, Africa’s ending (2020) score is slightly higher than the starting (2007) score for the developed aggregate.
This data can be further broken down by African sub region and regional economic community (REC)[iv]. By far the most outstanding African regional grouping, when it comes to regulatory performance, is the East African Community (EAC), which scores higher than the ROW aggregate by approximately 10%. The EAC members have clearly produced a superior regulatory environment for ICTs and this sets them above their regional peers. In fact, the EAC has multiple REC-level ICT-related policy frameworks, including the ICT Policy and Harmonisation Framework[v], which although it is not binding, provides direction and guidance on how policies could be harmonised.
At the individual country level, EAC member Rwanda is a good example of effective and coordinated ICT policy that is reflected in a rapid rollout of broadband and sharp increase in internet access. In 2001, Rwanda released the first five-year National Communication Infrastructure Policy (NICI), which was followed by three additional frameworks, the final plan being renamed ‘Smart Rwanda’[vi].
The policies recognise, promote and incentivise broadband uptake, e-government, electronic transactions, e-commerce, data protection and cyber security. The policies include tax incentives and special economic zones (SEZs) in order to promote the competitiveness of services. Besides this, the policy is coordinated across government silos, is comprehensive and incorporates mechanisms to enhance consultation and collaboration with private sector and other bodies[vii].
Africa made greater relative progress into the digital world in the previous decade than any other region or country aggregate. By crafting and implementing good ICT policies, African countries can continue this impressive rate of digital development progress into the current decade.
[i] https://www.itu.int/itu-d/sites/statistics/. Note that the author has made additional calculations and interpolations using this data as described in the tralac trade brief ‘ICT Policy Choices and Digital Development in Africa’ (forthcoming).
[ii] Note however, that the aggregate for non-African developing countries includes countries such as China, which perhaps have more in common with developed than developing countries.
[iii] ITU 2022. The ITU Regulatory Policy Tracker. [Accessed 1st February 2022] https://app.gen5.digital/tracker/about
[iv] This data is provided in the forthcoming trade brief by the author: ‘ICT Policy Choices and Digital Development in Africa’.
[vi] Ministry of ICT and Innovation 2022. MINICT Organised a cluster review meeting to validate SRMP report. [Accessed 1st February 2022] https://www.minict.gov.rw/news-detail/minict-organized-a-cluster-review-meeting-to-validate-srmp-report
[vii] ITU Publications 2021b. Switching on Smart Rwanda: Digital inclusion, collaboration and a G5 mindset. Geneva: International Telecommunication Union.
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