- Frankly Speaking
- By Giles Merritt
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.
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