Africa’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector has seen unprecedented growth in recent years. The private sector has invested close to $50 billion in the last decade, with a focus on mobile and related applications, and more recently in international submarine cables. Mobile density in the continent jumped from 20% (in terms of the number of SIM cards sold per 100 inhabitants) in 2005 to around 65% in 2011. Recent completion of undersea cables has tripled available bandwidth. However, the rollout of ICT infrastructure, in particular access to the Internet is uneven (Internet penetration is about 11.5% in 2011) and many underserved countries and areas remain. In addition the lack of regional and national backbone infrastructure is a stumbling block towards the development of broadband Internet. The promotion of ICT in Africa still requires investing billions of dollars.
The ICT sector has proven to be a strong driver of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth in nations across the world. From developing countries to developed nations – the ICT sector has played a part in the success of each of these nation’s economies, the advancement of its people’s skill-sets, capabilities and positioning the nations as a place for global firms to move efficiently conduct business.
Over the past decade – ICT has been a major economic driver to boost the social and economic landscape of the African continent. The ICT sector is better positioned to leverage businesses and the continent to some impressive growth of economies. The ICT sector witnessed double digit growth and if this trend continues upwardly – ICT expenditure in Africa could exceed $150 billion by 2016. The ICT expenditure would continue to include computer hardware and software, computer services (computer and network systems integration, data processing services) and communications services (voice and data communications services) and wired and wireless communication equipment. African countries have made positive progress on access to ICT services – however there is still work to be done in terms of ICT readiness. According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Development Index – it indicated that the African region has made slower progress when compared to other regions in the past two years – with roughly half the improvement on an aggregate basis. Access to ICT still remains a huge challenge for most African countries.
ICT have become ubiquitous – as it now plays an important role in transforming people’s lives globally. In Africa – ICT is set to transform many lives on the social and economic level. Africa has witnessed success of ICT initiatives from mobile banking in East Africa to smart apps that are now being used across the entire continent – apps designed to fulfill different purposes and solving diverse issues. Africa has seen tremendous growth in the last decade and a half – ICT growth has been primarily fueled by mobile cellular communications; mobile penetration; affordability and access to mobile telephony; internet access uptake (one in six people are online in Africa); submarine cable have enhanced international connectivity – the continent now has more than 10 terabytes of submarine connectivity around Northern Africa since 2014; 7 terabytes around Eastern Africa and 4 terabytes around Western Africa. These developments in infrastructure and solutions in Africa – signify and represent a renewed confidence and optimism in Africa’s digital future.
A great amount of work still needs to be done though – as of 2014/2015 more than 80% people in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) were still offline – deprived access to the incredible knowledge wealth and riches that the internet can bring into their lives and also the ones who have access – it is still vastly expensive with mobile broadband costing 40-60% of average income in SSA.
The digital revolution has brought many private benefits and a look at a day in the life of the internet reveals some interests trends:
- 7 billion Emails sent
- 8 billion YouTube videos watched
- 2 billion Google searches conducted
- 3 billion Gigabyte (GB) of web traffic
- 803 million Tweets
- 186 million Instagram photos
- 152 million Skype calls
- 36 million Amazon purchases
This digital revolutions also has some benefits that economies can reap from these trends – digital technologies are transforming more businesses (advent of e-commerce); digital technologies are transforming people’s lives – through digital payments/mobile money accounts/mobile remittances (number of mobile accounts worldwide stood at 300 million as of 2014/2015); digital technologies are transforming governments – with the implementation of digital identities in some parts of the world and also digital technologies promoting development on various scales – expanding the information base, lowering information costs and creating information goods.
We might be privy to these trends; however, a significant digital divide still remains as:
- 6 billion people still without Broadband
- 4 billion people still without Internet
- 2 billion people still without Mobile Phones
- 4 billion people still without A Digital Signal
The ICT sector is among the most profitable and successful – has revolutionized the way the world communicates. Through a combination of forward looking government policies and regulatory reforms; international standards; industry innovation and investment in infrastructure and new services – billions of people have been brought in to the information society in a remarkably short period of time.
ICT entrepreneurs, small to medium enterprises (SMEs) and start-ups have a specific role in ensuring economic growth in a more sustainable and inclusive manner – as they continue to be involved in the development and innovative ICT – enabled solutions with a unique potential to make a long lasting impact in national, regional and global economies and also as an important source of new jobs. The fundamental role of ICT innovators and SMEs is also reflected in the outcomes of the World Summit in the Information Society (WSIS) which was supported by the World Telecommunications and Information Society Day (WTISD 2016) which was celebrated on the 17th May 2016 – with a theme aligned to ITU’s work in unlocking the potential of ICT’s for young innovators, entrepreneurs, innovative SMEs, start-ups and technology hubs as key drivers of innovative and practical solutions for catalyzing progress in achieving international development goals – with a focus on SMEs from developing countries.
There is progress in Africa in the advancement of ICT in transforming the economy of the continent. Bringing Rwanda under the spotlight here – as the Global Information Technology Report (GITR) 2015 – ranked Rwanda first globally for government success in ICT promotion to drive social and economic transformation and according to the World Economic Forum (WEF) Report – Rwanda scored 6.2 points out of 7. Overall Rwanda was ranked No 83 out of 143 countries – positioning Rwanda as the first country in the region and the 5th in Africa. Upon the release of the GITR 2015 report – Rwanda’s Minister of Youth and ICT stated that “Rwanda continues to be one of the fastest growing African countries in ICT and there are several avenues for growth for the ICT sector – from e-commerce and e-services; mobile technologies; applications development and automation to becoming a regional centre for the training of top quality ICT professionals and research”. A robust ICT industry creates wealth, jobs and entrepreneurs.
New developments in Rwanda’s ICT scene include KLab, a youth innovation hub; Think, a technology hub in Kigali; Rwanda Media Hub; The Office and YouthConnekt. Also, the new Kigali Innovation City attracted the first Carnegie Mellon University campus in Africa.
Whereas South Africa is ranked No 5 in ICT infrastructure in Africa – after Seychelles, Libya, Mauritius and Algeria, Rwanda’s high performance was boosted by its One-Laptop-Per-Child policy which saw a distribution of more than 200,000 laptops to grade schoolers.
Various ICT initiatives have also leveraged the transformative opportunities presented by this sector in Africa. The initiatives borne by the ICT sector in developing Africa’s digital economy include:
- Connect Africa Initiative: a global partnership mobilizing the human, financial and technical resource needed to bridge major gaps in ICT infrastructure across the continent which saw a pledge of more than $55 billion.
- International Fibre Connectivity: a number of submarine cable backbone projects proposed in recent years with coverage of 70, 000 km coastal line and estimated cost of $6.4 billion (East African Submarine Cable System; SEACOM; The East Africa Marine System TEAMS)
- East African Broadband Network (EABN): implementing an integrated East African Broadband ICT Infrastructure Network – providing cross border connectivity between 5 East Africa Community partner states (Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda)
- South Africa Region Backbone – SATA Backhaul: aimed at improving cross border links that would interconnect the SADC member states through optical fibre networks and link them to submarine cable system including the Eastern African Submarine cable System (EASSY).
In conclusion, ICT’s has the potential to transform businesses and governments in Africa – driving entrepreneurship, innovation and economic growth. ICT has and plays a pivotal role in enhancing African regional trade and integration as well as the need to build a competitive ICT industry to promote job creation, innovation and the export potential of Africa companies. The future looks certainly bright as Africa seizes the opportunities and employ the transformative power of ICT’s to accelerate its development. ICT driven Africa is a continent where its people prosper – where communities connect and flourish – where businesses thrive – where government enable strong and sustainable development. Africa’s ICT is certainly poised for stupendous growth.
By Dipolelo Moime, CEO, Legato Consultancy Ltd.
Follow him on twitter: @DipoleloMoime