Building capacity to help Africa trade better

Africa needs to increase access to internet if digital trade is to be meaningful, says Vera Songwe


Africa needs to increase access to internet if digital trade is to be meaningful, says Vera Songwe

Africa needs to increase access to internet if digital trade is to be meaningful, says Vera Songwe
Photo credit: UN | JC McIlwaine

A two-day conference on “Digital Trade in Africa: Implications for Inclusion and Human Rights”, opened in Addis Ababa Thursday, with a high level panel discussion on the importance of digital technologies in the advancement of trade and Africa’s development.

The panelists at the opening session were Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commissioner for Africa; UNCTAD’s Secretary-General, Mukhisa Kituyi; former ECA Executive Secretary, Carlos Lopes; and Amani Abou-Zeid, African Union Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy.

Ms. Songwe hailed Kenya for leading the continent in terms of internet penetration, adding much more still needs to be done across Africa for digital trade to make a difference.

“For digital trade to be meaningful we need to increase access to the internet, make it affordable, reliable and fast. Many countries, especially our landlocked countries, still have very limited connectivity,” she said.

She said the human rights part of the digital economy debate was important and should be discussed more on the continent. Ms. Songwe cautioned that too much government intervention could kill innovation. She also noted that digitalization is essentially about owning an identity which is a fundamental human right. “With a portable digital identity, the question of identity can be solved for migrants,” she said.

The ECA Chief talked about India’s growing digital space which has opened vast economic opportunities for its citizens and what Africa could learn from the south Asian country.

“India under the Adhaar program has the largest digital revolution taking place with 1.1 billion Indians registered and 300 million people verifying their IDs every day for transactions. Africa can do the same,” said Ms. Songwe.

The Internet of Things industry in India is expected to reach $15 billion by 2020 with the digital infrastructure creating tremendous opportunities for technology players and in key applications such as smart cities, smart utilities, smart healthcare, smart transportation and more.

“This is a space that is growing in amazing leaps and bounds and as a continent we should be part of it,” said Ms. Songwe.

“When we start talking about digital systems and what we need to do, then the question is; how well is Africa equipped to get into the digital age. We have phones and payment systems but I think we need to get to the next level. There’s a lot more work that needs to be done.”

She also highlighted governance systems; shared responsibility for broadband networks; internet security and use of information; civil registration; and financial inclusion for those at the bottom.


Mr. Lopes, who is currently a Visiting Professor at the University of Cape Town, said African countries should prepare themselves for a digital economy that could possibly be difficult and challenging to adjust to.

He said the advantages were, however, immense.

For example, said Mr. Lopes, the youth bulge was advantageous to Africa as populations in the West and countries like Japan shrink in the next 20years.

Africa’s youth repository will adapt quickly so that’s a huge advantage to the continent as countries navigate the digital economy, he added.

“We need to tell our policymakers that they need to go fast because the windows are closing really, really fast.”

Ms. Abou-Zeid said the African Union Commission was doing a lot of work with its partners, including the ECA, to prepare African nations on how to regulate and deal with digital economy issues.

“The idea is that we want this digital economy to be an equalizer; to encourage democratic tendencies in our countries and making sure that we are bridging the gap between those in the rural and urban areas, especially ensuring girls and women also have access to the digital economy,” said Ms. Abou-Zeid.

For his part, Mr. Kituyi said there was need for more political will on the continent to embrace electronic commerce. He said sometimes there’s a defeatist tendency by some governments on the continent that e-commerce is too advanced and that they cannot do it.

“The transformational power of digitalization cannot be overemphasized. We need to dream and our governments must respond and become responsive,” Mr. Kituyi said.

The conference is providing a platform for stakeholders to share and brainstorm ideas on the important inclusion and human rights implications of digital trade in Africa.

It was co-organized by the African Trade Policy Centre (ATPC) of the ECA, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) East Africa Regional Office and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Geneva Office.


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