In many ways, Africa remains the ultimate paradox. The cradle of the human species and home to some of our earliest civilisations, the continent remains – in some areas – one of the least developed in modern times, while on the cutting edge in others.
A much more recent paradox is the fact that while most of the continent struggles for Internet access – only South Africa, Nigeria and Morocco have around 50 per cent of their citizens online, and it’s much lower in most sub-Saharan countries – it also has enormous mobile phone penetration.
Around 73% of the people in sub-Saharan Africa had mobile phones in 2014, and that percentage increases every year – Africa has more mobile phone users than the US and Europe combined.
Smartphone penetration was still only at around 20%, but the shortage of internet connectivity through landline connections is also driving that growth, as more and more urban Africans discover the joys of shopping, connecting and gaming via their smartphones.
Much of This Is Virgin Territory
But the digital revolution can transform societies in much deeper ways, and again, Africa’s paradoxical nature could be an unexpected benefit here.
In the developed world, innovations made possible by digital technology have to disrupt existing systems to gain a share of the market – witness the violent conflict in many parts of the world between ride-sharing apps like Uber and the metered-taxi industry, or the reaction of established mainstream banks to blockchain and cryptocurrency startups.
However, in many parts of Africa, many of the industries and services for which digital innovations are proving so disruptive don’t exist in the first place.
The unprecedented new access to healthcare, education, retail and entrepreneurial opportunities, and even legal advice and other professional services that can be launched via digital networks can enjoy increased first-adopter penetration simply by being the first of their kind available at all.
Is it any wonder that African leaders, from Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni to South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, are encouraging the digital revolution across the continent? It has immense possibilities for developing the region into an economic powerhouse.
How the Digital Revolution Can Transform Africa
Young African entrepreneurs have proven themselves just as innovative as their counterparts around the world, from filmmakers and video gamers to inventors and scientists. Apart from anything else, greater digital connectivity simply allows Africans to play in a world market, and get their ideas, products and services to any potential customers around the globe. It also allows them to discover a world of new entertainment options, from playing online Roulette to streaming movies and online news, thus opening the door to greater global knowledge too.
But there are also a number of other ways investment in Africa’s digital infrastructure can drive economic growth and the social and political development that goes with it. Here are just three:
- Education: Even countries like South Africa, which spends a disproportionate percentage of GDP on education, face enormous challenges of distance, infrastructure, skills and materials when it comes to education, as well as various levels of adult illiteracy. Digital education is a way to uplift huge numbers of people cost-effectively, with programmes ranging from primary school to tertiary level, and including adult education.
- Agriculture: Farming accounts for 60% of employment in sub-Saharan Africa, and the continent is the last major reservoir of uncultivated temperate land, in an increasingly hungry world. The potential of digital technology in agriculture – from educating and informing farmers on crop or weather threats, or allowing small-scale farmers in East Africa to hire a tractor via their smartphone, to allowing small farming cooperatives a choice of markets and hence negotiating power, and myriad other possibilities yet unthought of – is enormous
- Entrepreneurship: Many African countries struggle with unemployment, while at the same time the world turns to increasing mechanisation across a plethora of low-skilled jobs. The result, until such time as universal basic incomes are a reality, is that many people are forced into entrepreneurial roles, marketing products or services in their own businesses. All kinds of tools that go with a small or medium enterprise – from training and even completing regulatory requirements, to marketing, retailing, invoicing, banking and accounting – can be made easier to obtain and use by Africa’s digital revolution.
The signs are there; Africa is ready to take off in the digital space. Shouldn’t more tech investors be taking note?