Turning Africa’s Digital Divide into Digital Opportunity
Africa is the fastest growing mobile market in the world, and on the verge of an internet boom. More than 720 million people have access to mobile phones, and there are some 167 million internet users. Africa was the first region in the world to offer free, mobile roaming services across several countries. All this has taken place in the past decade.
In this note, I discuss the main barriers to a wider Information and Communication Technology (ICT) uptake in Africa, while also highlighting opportunities of closing the digital divide and the role that the African Development Bank.
II. Africa’s Rapid Adoption of ICT
The rapid adoption and growth of ICT has empowered Africans—from enabling market women to reach their clients to providing a commodity trading platform for farmers. Governments are now using the internet and mobile technology in service delivery, tax collection, and in procurement and regulation, referred to broadly as e-government. ICT has also been a game changer in healthcare and education delivery. A number of countries (e.g. Ethiopia, Rwanda) have set up commodity exchanges using ICT. Digital technologies are crucial in linking Africa and its regions to regional and global value chains.
III. From Digital Divide to Digital Opportunity
In spite of the remarkable recent progress, the continent’s broader internet usage is quite limited. The causes range from the low levels of economic development and the relatively high cost of ICT infrastructure. The evidence of the digital divide includes:
700 million people have limited or no access to broadband connections—with about 300 million living some 50km from a fibre or cable broadband connection, and the rest with no internet access at all;
Only a very limited number of Africans – mostly in urban areas—reside within reach of a 3G network, which allows for high-speed mobile access to the internet;
The internet’s contribution to Africa’s GDP, at about one percent in 2013, is only a third of that for developed economies;
A closer look at the digital gaps reveals a range of spatial and policy obstacles to the use of the ICT especially among rural populations, youth, women in impoverished urban areas, and unskilled workers. The latter most often do not own internet-capable devices, nor are they able to go online regularly if at all. Key barriers to the use of ICT are as follows:
Limited Access – less than twenty percent of the population in Africa can go online, mostly due to the lack of ICT infrastructure. The internet bandwidth currently available to Africa has improved significantly in the last five years, although more needs to be done.
Inadequate Motivation/Incentives – for some households, especially low-income ones, the incentive and motivation for using the internet for personal or professional needs is quite low. In many cases language barriers are part of the challenge.
Limited Education and Skills – the use of the internet requires a level of education and skills often lacking among the population—but which can be gained via the education system. The introduction of a culture of ‘lifelong learning’ would be important.
Cultural Impediments – Culture has sometimes impeded use of the internet. For example, gender differences in access to education, with girls discouraged from technical subjects at school in favour of boys, have had implications for equality in access to the internet.
Payoff to raising ICT use in Africa is substantial. Beyond connectivity, an adequate ICT infrastructure network would cut the cost of doing business and promote financial inclusion. Closing the digital divide would boost GDP via enhancements to productivity. Internet use could add $300 billion a year to Africa’s GDP by 2025 (McKinsey Global Institute, 2013).
IV. ICT Development in Africa is a Bank Priority
The African Development Bank’s Ten Year Strategy identifies ICT as a key sector for Africa’s transformation. In recent years, the Bank has supported the financing of the Eastern Africa Submarine System cable project, which connects countries in the region to the rest of the world. The Bank has also financed the Central African Backbone Program, a system of fibre-optic cables linking African countries. In 2013, the Bank launched the Africa 50 Fund, focused on financing “transformative” infrastructure projects, including in ICT.
African Development Bank, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and Economic Commission for Africa (2009), African Economic Outlook 2009, AfDB, OECD, and ECA.
McKinsey Global Institute (2013), Lions go digital: the internet’s transformative potential in Africa, McKinsey Global Institute: Washington DC.