The Africa We Want
By Abdel Monem Fawzi
As a continent, Africa will be the next big growth market in the world. The reason is that we are home to some of the youngest populations in the world. Africa promises to be a major consumption market over the next three decades. It is increasingly mobile phone-enabled.
An emerging digital ecosystem is particularly crucial as a multiplier of that growth because access to smart phones and other devices enhances consumer information, networking, job-creating resources, and even financial inclusion.
Despite reasons for optimism, the digitisation promise remains unfulfilled. I wonder whether the true acceleration potential lies in the rapid spread of mobile digital technology. Will this technology help the leap forward in our economic development?
The Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) will hold its 54th Conference of African Ministers of Finance, Planning and Economic Development virtually under the theme ‘Africa’s sustainable industrialisation and diversification in the digital era in the context of Covid-19’.
The ministerial segment of the conference will take place on 22-23 March. It will be preceded by a meeting of the Committee of Experts between 17-19 March for technical deliberations on the theme and the statutory issues of the commission. Special and side events will also be held on the margins of the session.
The theme this year recognises the continent’s desire to industrialise and create jobs for millions of Africans, especially the youth joining the labour market annually.
The coming into force of the AfCFTA signalled a unique turning point in the continent’s pursuit of industrialisation, with e-commerce, a catalyst in digitised economies, being a cornerstone of the pact’s infrastructure.
A main element of this year’s theme is the recognition of the need for African countries to achieve rapid economic growth without exacerbating the environmental cost of development. It calls for an alignment of development strategies with climate change mitigation measures, recognising that industrialization, albeit an effective engine of growth for many developed countries, has come at a severe cost to the global climate.
The theme also recognises that Africa’s developmental path must minimise the aberration of developed nations and instead seek to embrace modernisation through digitisation and less climate-costly industrialisation activities.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected Africa’s economy, pushing it into contraction, for the first time in more than 20 years, by an estimated 2 to 5.4 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2020, it has further highlighted the need for accelerating Africa’s digitisation.
The meeting will provide an opportunity for African Ministers to deliberate on how countries can leverage the rapid technological innovation to foster stronger economic growth and promote sustainability and inclusiveness against the background of the urgent action that is needed to offset the impact of Covid-19 on Africa’s economies and economic trajectory.
The conference, which will draw seasoned and high-level panelists from within and outside Africa, promises to be very exciting and engaging, with outcome decisions that will have important implications for Africa’s future.
ECA Executive Secretary, Vera Songwe, said Africa was at a point of great challenge and great opportunity.
The negative economic impact of Covid-19, and the difficulties in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, including youth employment were very significant challenges.
“At the same time, the continent represents enormous opportunities for private sector investment to drive inclusive growth and build forward better,” Songwe said. “The private sector working with governments can come up with solutions for innovative financing, particularly in technology and energy,” she added.
She noted that Africa received only $2.4 billion in investments across all sectors against a big shortfall to close the gap.
She added that in the energy sector, for example, annual investments of between $50 billion and $70 billion are needed if Africa is to move close to attaining the development goals.
“With over 600 tech hubs led by youths in Africa, we urgently need to factor in intellectual property rights, necessary for protecting their innovations,” Songwe said.
The ECA Chief said Africa, despite current difficulties, needs to continue moving ahead to achieve the SDGs and bridging the gender gap.
“We hope this conference offers a handy tool for decision-makers in business and policy to identify country and regional strengths and prioritize the gaps to be closed,” she said.
What Africa wants from this conference is to take into consideration these questions:
To what extent is the continent ready for high-skilled digital jobs, such as online freelance work?
To what extent is Africa ready for medium-skilled digital jobs, such as ride sharing services?
To what extent are we ready for low-skilled traditional jobs created by the digital sector, such as e-commerce, which creates work in delivery services, warehousing and logistics?
Do the governments have effective digital services and regulations in place?
Do the countries have reliable basic infrastructure, such as internet connectivity and mobile networks, as well as electricity supply?
How fast has the state of digital development changed during the past decade?
To what extent have Africans shifted from reliance on cash to digital money, particularly mobile money?
And the million-dollar question: Do governments in Africa allow free speech and exchange online?