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According to many experts, the success of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) will depend on digital technology, tools and skills. Giving the annual Adebayo Adedeji address at a recent UN Economic Commission for Africa’s (ECA) Conference of Ministers, Chairperson of the global Alliance for Affordable Internet Dr. Omobola Johnson said there is enough evidence that Africa can be digitally transformed.

African digital transformation needs work

She cited a number of success stories across the continent and how they have used technology to provide services to the under-served, but said that many challenges remained.

“Affordability is an issue. The internationally agreed target is for 1gb of data to cost no more than 2% of the average national monthly income. In Africa, this currently stands at 8.76%, compared to 3.5% in Latin America or 1.54% in Asia. And the latest affordability reports show that this has increased over the past year,” she said.

She also noted disturbing tax trends, on digital infrastructure as well as utilisation taxes. These, Johnson said, can be seductive but can often have unintended consequences, such as increasing the cost of digitisation and curbing its transformative impact.

“There is an urgent need to strengthen the infrastructure and fibre network. Currently, when connecting Cape to Khartoum, the connection will go via London, New York, San Jose and Tokyo to arrive in Khartoum 409 milliseconds later,” she said.

“When you recognize these challenges and accept that there is a lack of scale amongst our start-ups it could be argued therefore that this digital transformation we speak about might be hyped. But the increased ownership of mobile phones and those that have access to it is having a true impact.”

Tawanda Sibanda, partner at global consultancy McKinsey, responded to the lecture, stating that digital transformation could raise GDP by 8% by 2025 and make $300bn of economic impact across health, education, retail, agriculture and financial services. “Despite certain metrics being ahead of schedule – smartphone penetration for example – this has not translated into macro-economic numbers as would have been expected. The percentage of banked for example, has only increased from 26% to 33% in five years,” Sibanda said.

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