Unlocking the Digital Economy in Africa: Announcing DIAL’s New Listening Study with Smart Africa

If you would like to read the full report in English, French, or Portuguese, please visit the publications page.

Developing and delivering a vision and agenda for national digital transformation is key to unlocking the full potential of the digital economy in Africa. In November 2019, the Smart Africa Alliance and the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) initiated a partnership to support African governments, through the Ministries in charge of ICT/Digital Economy, in achieving this goal. In the first phase of this partnership, we have sought to assess country progress towards digital economy using a benchmarking exercise of the five pillars of the Digital Economy Blueprint (digital government, digital business, infrastructure, innovation-led entrepreneurship, digital skills and values), with a particular focus on digital government.

Our joint report, entitled “Unlocking the Digital Economy in Africa: Benchmarking the Digital Transformation Journey” is the outcome of that assessment, and has been published on our website today. The findings of this report will inform subsequent support, related recommendations to the Smart Africa Alliance and will help guide the development of technical working groups to facilitate regional collaboration and peer learning between member countries.

As we were beginning our research in March, COVID-19 began spreading across the globe. As a result, this study has forced us to grapple with not only how governments are digitally transforming their economies but also the urgent reasons why they are seeking to transform. In particular, the pandemic has put a spotlight on the critical need to expand digital government services, develop new digital infrastructure, and close gaps in connectivity and the adoption of digital technologies. Such developments will help not only grow the digital economy but help to make it more inclusive and resilient for everyday citizens and businesses.

While the momentum for change is palpable today, the desire for digital transformation is not new. All 10 countries profiled in this study have shown considerable progress on many measured indicators of digital government over the last 20 years. They have experienced huge gains in promoting digital innovation through growing digital business, expanding access to digital products and services, and facilitating new modes of production using digital technologies. In focusing on the role of government in particular, we have highlighted successes in four key areas:

1. An accelerating shift in developing digital government services centered on the user (i.e. citizens and businesses),

2. More coordinated and intentional approaches to digital government strategies and plans,

3. Strengthening development and implementation of digital economy strategies, and

4. Recognition of the need for inclusive and human-centered digital transformation.

While these developments are encouraging, the digital transformation of these 10 economies is happening at different paces, and there are several notable challenges which need to be addressed. The main challenge was coordinating national strategy and implementation, including defining national key performance indicators (KPIs) and whole-of-government coordination. Other issues included partnerships, infrastructure development, funding, digital change management, sectoral digital strategies, and closing the skills gap. We have highlighted considerations regarding these areas throughout the report, as well as highlighted in our call-to-action suggested steps for member states to take in addressing them.

Our report also highlights the critical role governments play in convening different stakeholders and developing the foundational platforms, such as electronic identification and common data exchange infrastructure, upon which the digital economy is built.

While developing a digital economy starts with digital government, it must also include cooperation with global and regional actors and the private sector to drive more coordinated platforms and management, expand infrastructure and skills development, and create an innovation-friendly business environment. In this regard, the study has highlighted the need for a whole-of-society approach to unlocking the digital economy, one which creates mechanisms for all societal actors to participate in and own the priority-setting for (and implementation of) national digital transformation agendas.

Tackling such huge issues is challenging, but with countries in the driver seat, we believe that progress can be made in unlocking the full value of an inclusive digital economy in Africa. The global community must work together with countries and regional bodies to mainstream digital technologies into national development agenda setting. Together, we can invest in the success of countries in promoting inclusive digitalization, as well as make considerable progress towards digital transformation and integration in the coming decade.

For more information, please read a version of the full report “Unlocking the Digital Economy in Africa: Benchmarking the Digital Transformation Journey,” available here on the DIAL website. You can also read the new Smart Africa blog on the report, located here. We would like to thank Sense Strategy for their work in helping us to conduct and document the findings of this assessment.