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How Africa can prioritise digital infrastructure to boost its socio-economic status

The African continent has been lagging behind digital revolutions that other parts of the world have been enjoying for years. 

This has impacted how the continent shows up and performs in the global economy. Moreover, it has impacted several developmental prospects that the continent has been pursuing with the aim to improve its socio-economic status. 

The coronavirus pandemic has further lifted the lid on the technology gap in Africa, highlighting a significant challenge in both the lack of adequate infrastructure and the access to the existing infrastructure. The majority of citizens in African countries do not have access to the internet, which translates into a large number of Africans who are locked out of the digital economy. Businesses are adopting digital technologies and platforms at a rather slow pace. Digital skills are lacking, even for a youth that is brought up in a technological era. 

All of this paints a clear picture of the urgency required for the development of technological innovations in Africa, particularly where infrastructure is concerned. Below we’ll discuss how to improve African digital infrastructure development to mitigate the socio-economic consequences the continent faces and could face in the future.

What is digital infrastructure?

Digital infrastructure includes technologies such as internet backbones (connection networks that form the internet), fixed broadbands, mobile telecommunications, communication satellites, network infrastructures like Wi-fi networks and more. 

What to prioritise for digital infrastructure advancements

The world around us is shifting towards what has been coined as a digital revolution. For Africa to participate in the digital revolution, it needs to have digital technologies infrastructure. There are a few key factors to consider to make this a reality.  

Investments

Africa faces an investment deficit. Over the years, the investment gap widened and continues to widen to this day. According to this policy brief, Africa’s infrastructure investment needs have reached USD 130– 170 billion a year by 2018, with a financing gap of USD 68–108 billion (AfDB 2018). Meanwhile, Africa requires an estimated total of $135 billion annually to finance infrastructure, which means that until this amount is reached, Africa will still face an infrastructure gap. 

As the Development Bank of Southern Africa, it is our mandate to promote economic growth as well as regional integration for sustainable development projects and programmes in South Africa, SADC and the wider Sub Saharan Africa.

We do this by seeking funding from various financiers who are enthusiastic about engaging in Africa’s needs.  

Physical infrastructure development

With available funds, Africa has to prioritise the development of physical Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure. The South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) has tabled three main recommendations to drive the development:

  • Ongoing investment in assets – especially fibre. Particular attention should be paid to expansion in Africa’s rural areas, identifying and incentivising local-level providers.
  • Upgrading ICT policy capacity – by identifying gaps and reacting to changes in the ICT environment. Additionally, establish robust cybersecurity frameworks and ensure predictable conditions for the private sector.
  • The private sector involvement  – contributions from the private sector are necessary and should be encouraged and incentivised. Caution should be exercised in policy (such as taxation) towards it.

The DBSA facilitates infrastructure planning and development processes that encourage the development of international connectivity, backbone and network infrastructure, towers, fibre, undersea cables, data centres, satellites and fintech solutions.

Skills infrastructure development

Africa needs skills infrastructure to ensure that there is a workforce capable of using the advanced physical infrastructure. This article explains that a vision of the future demands a new generation of talent.  

It further adds that this means there is a need to train “an interdisciplinary workforce, unleashing their imagination and expertise to solve future problems, anticipating which innovations and technologies will be in the ascendant.” 

Final thoughts

Digital infrastructure deficit is one of Africa’s biggest deterrents to growth and competitive global participation. To ensure that this and other related consequences are mitigated, Africa needs to prioritise digital infrastructure advancements with urgency. As a development finance institute, we’re committed to doing our part to ensure that we meet our mandate and build prosperity for Africa and those who live in it.