Africa's digital revolution: towards an EU-Africa digital partnership

Past event

EU-Africa High Level Group


Why a digital partnership is necessary

Africa’s rapid embrace of digital technology delivers growth and innovation, boosting trade, employment, society and much more. Yet continent-wide challenges linked to people’s mobility, connectivity, capital and regulation could slow this promising revolution. Europe and Africa must redouble efforts to forge a stronger – and mutually beneficial – partnership in digital and other key domains.

These and other issues were discussed – under Chatham House rules – at the third meeting of the EU-Africa High-Level Group, which took place on 16 October 2019 in Brussels. Entitled ‘Africa’s digital revolution: towards an EU-Africa digital partnership’, the roundtable convened by Friends of Europe, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation and the One Campaign, gathered over 30 senior figures at the European Commission.

Over the last decade, Africa recorded the world’s fastest growth in Internet access, now approaching 25% of its population. Young African entrepreneurs and innovators are tapping into this potential for a digital-based market. They include the Nigerian motorbike and bike-hailing company Gokada, which boasts five million rides every day in Lagos, using a mobile app. One participant called this digital revolution a huge game-changer opportunity, helping many Africans to escape poverty and aspire to a meaningful job.

Online technology also benefits many who have been excluded from society, such as women, rural populations and the unbanked. Smartphones and computers are a boon for new business and mobile payments, healthcare, education and agriculture, and they can increase voter turnout in elections.

Connectivity is a priority

Africa must build a solid digital economy by increasing connectivity. “Without Internet access, there won’t be any digital revolution there,” argued one participant. Some 700 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are still not online.

If Europe is to build a digital alliance with Africa, several other areas must be addressed. Chief among them is capital – the funding required to build the continent’s digital infrastructure and to support businesses online. Debaters highlighted a large financing gap and called for far greater investment in Africa from the public and private sectors, such as via public-private partnerships and new financing models. Huge technology giants in Africa must also be taxed fairly.

African banks and other traditional partners shy away from supporting the digital economy, while venture capitalists hesitate to make the smaller loans needed by most African start-ups. The European Investment Bank, in Africa since 1963, has therefore adapted its work there. It advocates more equity investment in African companies, along with sharing lessons learned from supporting their small and medium-sized digital counterparts in Europe.

Revamping the regulatory framework

The final major hurdle for Africa’s digital revolution is regulation – or the lack of it. One participant highlighted a year-long battle to persuade telecoms regulators to cut the cost of a phone call from Kinshasa to Brazzaville, so calls are charged locally and don’t connect via Europe. When the green light was given, phone traffic rocketed by a factor of 1,000 in a single day! “Regulators like this must be trained or they can kill an industry,” added the participant.

Europe boasts plenty of regulatory experience, thanks to its digital single market, and should share this – such as through the Policy and Regulation Initiative for Digital Africa (PRIDA), a joint initiative of the African Union, the EU and the International Telecommunication Union. Africa could also benefit from widely adopting European technology and telecom standards. Although the United States and China may be ahead on digital, Europe – for political and historical reasons – has deeper penetration in Africa and offers standards that are more open and values-based than those of its competitors.

Participants also called for more free movement of Africans, within the continent and between Africa and Europe, plus greater ambition for education and training programmes like the EU’s Erasmus+.

The debate concluded with participants re-asserting the need to expand this renewed EU-Africa alliance beyond a mere “migration containment”. They agreed that digital technology plays a vital role in building a strategic, sustainable partnership as it is a cross-cutting element to many other key cooperation areas, such as: data flows, ownership, and security, taxation, agriculture, education and skills development, climate change and so on.

It was suggested that digital is the “special something” that the EU brings to its relationship with Africa, thanks to European experience, standards and its creative industry. Europe, however, must provide greater funding and regulatory support to its neighbour for this to happen – or risks losing out to other global players operating in Africa.

Africa's digital revolution: towards an EU-Africa digital partnership
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The EU-Africa High-Level Group of personalities is a joint initiative launched by Friends of Europe, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation and the ONE Campaign in 2018. Meeting twice a year, once in Africa and once in Europe, the group explores mutually beneficial ways for the two continents to work together effectively across core policy areas, including development cooperation, trade, investments, entrepreneurship, digital, migration flows, security, and climate change.

The selected EU and African personalities are high-level experts and much-respected thinkers who can provide honest opinions and ideas, not afraid to speak truth to power. The high-level group helps craft a new narrative for a modernised and prospect-oriented Africa-Europe relationship. Their suggestions and recommendations not only feed into the strategies of upcoming political discussions in Africa and the EU but also ensure concrete actions.

This event is exclusively for members of the EU-Africa High-Level Group and invited guests.


Confirmed members

Ayodeji Adewunmi

Co-Founder & Director, Emprego Holdings

Joaquim Alberto Chissano

Former president of the Republic of Mozambique and former president of the African Union

Etienne Davignon

President of Friends of Europe, Belgian Minister of State and former European commission vice-president

Hailemariam Desalegn Boshe

Former prime minister of Ethiopia and former president of the African Union

Arancha González

former Executive Director of the International Trade Centre, and former Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, EU and Cooperation

Mo Ibrahim

Co-Founder and Co-Chair of the Africa-Europe Foundation, Founder and Chairman of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, Founding Chairman of Satya Capital Limited, Founder of Mobile Systems International (MSI) and Celtel International, and Trustee of Friends of Europe

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

First democratically elected female head of state in Africa, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Honorary Co-President of the Africa-Europe Foundation

Ramtane Lamamra

African Union High Representative for Silencing the Guns and former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Algeria

Pascal Lamy

Vice President of the Paris Peace Forum, former director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Trustee of Friends of Europe and Member of the Africa-Europe Foundation High-Level Group of Personalities

Festus Mogae

Former President of Botswana

Executive committee

Geert Cami

Co-Founder and Secretary General of Friends of Europe, and Co-Founder and Co-Secretary General of the Africa-Europe Foundation

Nathalie Delapalme

Executive Director, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, Co-Secretary General of the Africa-Europe Foundation

David McNair

Executive Director for Global Policy at the ONE Campaign

Confirmed guests

Aïcha Bah Diallo

Former Chair of Trust Africa; Former Minister of Education of Guinea

Berta Celestino Cossa

Ambassador, Embassy of the Republic of Mozambique to the EU

Tim Cole

Executive Director for Europe at the ONE Campaign

Maria Dimitriadou

Senior International Affairs Officer, The World Bank Group

Koen Doens

Director General, DG International Partnerships INTPA, European Commission

Mariya Gabriel

European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, European Young Leader (EYL40)

Jesse Klaver

Member of the Dutch House of Representatives, Leader of the Dutch green party GroenLinks, Trustee of Friends of Europe and 2018 European Young Leader (EYL40)

Mark Leonard

Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), United Kingdom

Siegfried Leffler

Director, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) Brussels Office

Neven Mimica

European Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development

Carlos Moedas

Mayor of Lisbon, former EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, former Portuguese Under Secretary of State and Trustee of Friends of Europe

Sabine Müller

Director-General of the Africa Department, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), Germany

Tomoharu Otake

Chief Representative, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)

Koen Vervaeke

European External Action Service Managing Director of the Directorate for Africa

Leila Zerrougui

Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Democratic Republic of the Congo



Concept note
Expand Concept note

Digital technology is transforming the world. Given its potential to leapfrog and disrupt traditional development models, Digital Africa is a top priority for public, private and international sectors in both Africa and Europe. The stakes are high: while an efficient digital environment could boost African intra- and international trade and make the continent a global market shaper, failing to rise to the challenge could result in isolation and stagnation. Digital Africa is also key to achieve most SDGs, combat climate change and ensure transparency and good governance.

Africa has strong potential. It is home to the world’s youngest population and has the fastest growing digital market. This promise attracts much interest: China, the United States, Russia, Turkey, Japan and India are all keen on securing ties with the continent. And so does Europe. But although foreign investment, both direct and indirect, has played and undoubtedly will continue to play a crucial role in Africa’s digital transformation, careful management is needed to ensure that the digital revolution does not descend into new Scramble for Africa.

Africa isn’t waiting for outsiders to ensure its digital future. Africa is rich in innovations and initiatives, with young entrepreneurs and innovators creating new solutions and breaking new ground in a number of areas. This 3rd meeting of the EU-Africa High Level Group of Personalities will examine the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for both Africa and Europe as they seek to reinvent their relationship in a rapidly changing world.

The first session will be on Africa’s Digital Agenda.
The second one will focus on the larger story of reinvigorating EU-Africa relations.


Welcome lunch and registration of participants
Session I – Towards an EU-Africa digital partnership
Expand Session I – Towards an EU-Africa digital partnership

As the African continent moves towards ever-greater intra-regional economic integration, building a solid digital economy will require a focus in key areas, such as: digital infrastructure, digital literacy and skills, digital financial services, digital platforms, and digital entrepreneurship and innovation. This session will explore the digital issue and in particular will look at:

  • How can the digital dimension be included in the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in a way that boosts intra-regional e-commerce and the free flow of data, while ensuring data privacy?
  • What are the best financial tools to support innovation, start-ups and entrepreneurship? How can they be made more accessible? What can businesses do in return to foster the creation of successful single markets?
  • How can African governments ensure fair competition, cooperation and collaboration among the different foreign actors involved in developing Africa’s digital infrastructure? How can multilateral cooperation benefit Africa’s youth employment?
  • What is the best way to accelerate the adoption of e-services and further develop the digital economy to achieve the SDGs, tackle climate change, reinforce gender equality and bridge the urban-rural divide?
  • What approach can ensure universal access to affordable broadband and provide secondary and primary school in Africa with connectivity and reliable electricity?
  • How can the education system be ‘reimagined’ so as to guarantee essential skills for all, in particular girls, in education and Vocational Education and Training (VET)?


Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

Coffee break
Session II – Reinvigorating EU-Africa relations: the way forward
Expand Session II – Reinvigorating EU-Africa relations: the way forward

The year ahead is gearing up to be one of change and transformation: a new college of European Commissioners will be in office; ongoing negotiations for a renewed ACP-EU Partnership should be entering their final phase; the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) will adopt a single currency across all member states; and the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), comprised of 27 African Union member states, will enter into force. This session will help craft an effective action plan for a modernised Africa-Europe relationship. Members’ suggestions and recommendations will feed into the strategies of upcoming political discussions in Africa and the EU and also ensure concrete actions.

  • What are the easy wins to be pursued ahead of the next meeting in April 2020?
  • What are the short- and long-term priorities the group should focus on?
  • What are the roles and responsibilities that members of the group are willing to undertake?


Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

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