Africa’s young people are leading a digital revolution with enormous potential for economic and social development, participants at the latest ‘Debating Africa-EU’ online event heard Thursday. However, the continent’s technological transformation needs support to strengthen access and connectivity, fund infrastructure and training, and build a fair and safe regulatory framework.
“It’s absolutely obvious that there is a huge potential to create growth and jobs through the digital transformation and through the data economy,” (17:17) said Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for the Internal Market. “In order to do this … we should work together, EU with Africa, to see how we can help you to build your own African single market, that will allow for better economic and regional integration and boost, of course, economic growth.”
Breton was among senior officials from the European Union and African Union joining key stakeholders, business figures and civil society representatives from both sides of the Mediterranean in the ‘Debating Africa-EU’ series. The debates are feeding into agenda-setting for the forthcoming AU-EU summit which, Breton said, would discuss the creation of a digital single market for Africa.
Although COVID-19 is setting back African development, Amani Abou-Zied, African Union Commissioner for Infrastructure, Energy, ICT and Tourism, told the debate that the pandemic could provide a boost for the continent’s digital transformation.
“This pandemic, surprisingly, became the single best catalyst for digital transformation in the world and especially in Africa. Now, the race is on and it’s not about whether we digitalise or not, it’s rather how and how fast,” (8:27) she said. “It’s really encouraging to see governments and private sector, everyone across the continent reviewing their business models, their infrastructure, the platforms they have, to make sure they are wider and more accessible and that they are digitalised.”
Cooperation with Europe should focus on sustaining that progress and maintaining the momentum generated by Africa’s youthful tech forces, argued Lacina Koné, Director-General and CEO of Smart Africa, a partnership between 30 African countries to expand usage of information and communications technologies and access to broadband.
“If we are to make a sustainable social and economic development within both continents’ interests in this new paradigm, it is important to point out that sustainability in this new area is driven by the innovation that our young people have, with the presence of an inclusive participation of the population as a whole,” (38:43) he said. “When we talk about connectively, we have to talk about meaningful connectivity, we need access to devices.”
Europe is aware of those crucial changes and of the importance of digitalisation for the wider economy and climate action, said Jutta Urpilainen, European Commissioner for International Partnerships. That will be reflected in the summit agenda and in EU development programming following the approval of the Union’s new seven-year financial framework.
“Digital transformation is an opportunity for all our citizens. It provides youth with more skills to access a competitive job market, improves public services and enables citizens to work or study from home,” (5:13) she said. “The digital transformation and the green transition go hand in hand … they make one another more successful.”
As Africa and Europe seek to re-set their partnership, Friends of Europe is engaging with a diverse range of stakeholders across both continents to understand the long-term vision and the converging and diverging priorities at the heart of this new cooperation.
Africa and Europe have a shared interest and much to gain from one another in accelerating the progress of the global agenda for sustainable development and working together to address the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The health crisis has revealed the vulnerability and fragility of growth models across both continents whilst at the same time showcasing the power that digital technologies, robust industries, innovation ecosystems and integrated digital economies can have in building resilience and finding solutions to current and future shocks.
Through its “Debating Africa-EU” series, Friends of Europe is focused on engaging its partners, the African Union Commission and the new EU College of Commissioners around their vision and priorities for EU-Africa cooperation. In response to the Joint Communication, Towards a comprehensive Strategy with Africa, this series has been timed to take place in the run-up to the AU-EU Summit in 2020 and serves as a consultative exercise for stakeholders and partners from both continents to voice their perspectives on the future of the relationship. Following the first two debates of June 30 with Commissioner Urpilainen and September 10 with Commissioners Simson, Sacko and Abou-Zeid, the third ‘In Conversation With’ in this series takes place on September 17 with European Commissioner for the Internal Market, Thierry Breton and the African Union Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy, Dr. Amani Abou-Zeid. The strategic focus of the discussion will be on “A New Era of Digital Cooperation – Embracing Africa and Europe’s 4th Industrial Revolution”.
Past Event Recordings
- Creating a mutually beneficial partnership for Africa-Europe: Building a greener and fairer future
- The Next Generation of Africa Europe Relations, with Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen
- Strategic conversation with Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA)
- Strategic conversation with Ifeyinwa Ugochukwu, Chief Executive Officer of the Tony Elumelu Foundation
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Beyond the introduction of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), there is arguably no area more important to Africa’s economic growth and integration than the potential created by digital transformation and the advent of the 4th industrial revolution. Characterised by the junction of digital, physical, and biological systems to create a world defined by green energy, sustainable production systems and an intelligent and connected ecosystem, both Africa and Europe are at a pivotal point in time, where a transformative and shared digital agenda can prepare them to tackle their common future.
Both continents have a unique opportunity to leverage their partnership and economic linkages to promote a digital economy where the private sector, individuals, and consumers can safely, seamlessly and competitively engage in online activities. Increased access to digital technologies and especially the safe and smart use of data has the potential to improve governance, transparency, accountability and ultimately strengthen democracy and global competitiveness. However, the lack of protection and misuse of personal and commercial data exposes both partners to considerable disruptions, and despite many advancements, the digital divide across many African countries remains significant. Can Africa and Europe collaborate to reduce obstacles such as the need for improved physical and digital infrastructure; access and coverage; digital literacy, skills and financing; as well as the limited capacity of regulatory frameworks to embrace the 4th industrial revolution? As Africa and Europe embark on this new partnership both continents will ultimately need to build synergies based on common interest and comparative advantages.
Questions to be discussed include:
- How can Africa and Europe leverage their partnership and common interest to enhance both continents’ capacity to embark on the 4th Industrial revolution? Does the proposed EU comprehensive Strategy with Africa provide a framework to work together towards a fair digital transformation?
- How can Europe and Africa share best practices and solutions to reduce the digital divide, and safeguard citizens’ rights and digital sovereignty? Can they work together to protect and mitigate the risks associated with increased digitalisation of their economies and pursue a human-centred model, which puts people at the core of technological developments?
- What is the economic potential created by digital transformation and how can Africa and Europe reinforce transcontinental links between their private sectors and digital markets? What steps need to be introduced to accelerate the progress of an African digital single market?
- The Covid-19 pandemic has led to the emergence of digital solutions and new sectors across many African and European countries. However, it has also demonstrated the vast digital divide that still remains, what lessons can Africa and Europe draw from one another to better prepare for future shocks?
European Commissioner for International Partnerships
African Union Commissioner for Infrastructure, Energy, ICT and Tourism
European Commissioner for the Internal Market
Director-General and CEO of Smart Africa
Director of Insights at Friends of Europe
EU Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen currently oversees the Commission’s work on international partnerships, in addition to being an outspoken advocate for gender equality, social justice and youth participation. Before joining the Commission, Ms Urpilainen served as a Member of the Finnish Parliament from 2003 to 2019. In 2008, she became the first woman leader of the Social Democratic Party of Finland. From 2011 to 2014, she served as Finland’s Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister. During that time, she became closely involved in development issues. She served as the Foreign Minister’s Special Representative on Mediation (2017-19) and chaired the Finnish National Commission for UNESCO (2015-18).
Dr. Amani Abou-Zeid is the African Union Commissioner in charge of Infrastructure, Energy, ICT and Tourism. For more than 30 years, Dr Abou-Zeid, an Egyptian nation, has served in leadership positions in international organisations and has amassed a remarkable mix of experience from across continents and stakeholders. She has managed AfDB largest operational portfolio and implemented national and continental multi-sectoral development programmes, including implementing the world’s largest solar power plant. In 2018, she launched the Single African Air Transport Market, delivering on the first flagship project for African Integration under African Union Agenda 2063. This year, she launched Africa’s digital transformation strategy and many other continental initiatives and projects. Dr Abou-Zeid has a multi-disciplinary education: Electrical Engineering, Cairo University; MBA, Université Senghor; MPA, Harvard University; and Ph.D. Social and Economic Development, The University of Manchester.
In his current portfolio, Thierry Breton oversees the smooth functioning of the Single Market whilst leading the EU’s work on a new digital and industrial strategy. Before joining the European Commission, Breton was at the forefront of the telecoms and digital industry, as CEO of various companies, including Atos, France Telecom and Thomson Multimedia. In addition to his extensive experience in the private sector, Breton also served as the French Minister of the Economy, Finance and Industry, as well as Vice-President of the Poitou-Charentes Region and advisor to the French Minister for Education René Monory.
Lacina Koné is an Ivorian entrepreneur, who currently heads Smart Africa, a partnership between 30 African countries to expand usage of Information and Communications Technologies and access to broadband across the continent. Prior to his current position, Koné was the advisor to the Prime Minister of the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire in charge of Digital Transformation and Public Reforms, and was also the advisor to the President from 2011-2017. As an ICT industry expert with over 25 years of experience in the telecommunications, satellite and intelligent transport system, he has also held several high-level technical and managerial positions with prestigious firms such as Booz Allen Hamilton and Intelsat.
Prior to joining Friends of Europe, Dharmendra Kanani was director of policy at the European Foundation Centre (EFC). He was the England director at the Big Lottery Fund, the largest independent funder in the UK and fourth largest in the world. Dharmendra has held senior positions in the public and voluntary sector and advisor to numerous ministerial policy initiatives across the UK.
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