Information and communication technologies or ICT, have the potential to transform business and government in Africa, driving entrepreneurship, innovation and economic growth. The effect of ICTs on the African economy is impressive, but it is the way they are changing the everyday lives of Africans that is genuinely transformational.
THE TRANSFORMATIONAL POWER OF ICTs
The explosive growth of telecommunication in Africa over the past decade demonstrates the appetite for change across the continent. In the year 2000, there were fewer than 20 million fixed-line phones across Africa, a number that had accumulated slowly over a century, and a waiting list of a further 3.5 million. With a penetration rate of just over 2 percent, phones were to be found only in offices and the richest households. But the coming of the mobile phone has transformed communications access.
Starting with the current decade, there were almost 650 million mobile subscriptions in Africa, more than in the US or Europe, making Africa the fastest growing region in the world. Few imagined that such demand existed, let alone that it could be afforded. In some African countries, more people have access to a mobile phone than to clean water, a bank account, or even electricity. Mobile phones are now being used as a platform to provide access to the internet, to applications, and to government services.
The e-transform Africa has been influential & explains how mobile phones are being used to provide financial services in Kenya (M-PeSa) and agricultural market information services in Ghana (esoko). It shows how electronic filing of taxes in South Africa or sensor-based irrigation systems in Egypt are revolutionizing traditional practices and it describes how ICT tools are helping Africans face up to new challenges, like climate change, or tackle ongoing issues, such as Ebola.
Furthermore, the wider use of ICT in government is bringing more transparency and openness, for instance through Kenya’s Open Data initiative or the use of twitter and Facebook to coordinate protests and inform international opinion as part of the Arab Spring. This growing social and economic dependence on ICTs brings new challenges, not least the need for infrastructure to become more robust and resilient, and for services to become more reliable. Issues of cybersecurity and data protection will also come to the fore as security and trust become increasingly important.
Foreign direct investment is booming and Africa is now a much easier place to do business, thanks to its much improved connectivity. ICTs directly contribute around 7 per cent of Africa’s GDP, which is higher than the global average. That’s because in Africa, mobile phones are also substitutes for many other types of service, such as financial credit, newspapers, games and entertainment. So the value of a mobile phone is higher in Africa than elsewhere. We are now seeing the rapid development of internet broadband with smartphones and affordable tablets across Africa. This will bring even greater social and economic impacts over the next decade.
ICTs now offer major opportunities to advance human development – from providing basic access to education or health information to making cash payments and stimulating citizen involvement in the democratic process. Phones, computers and websites are powerful tools but it is individuals, communities and firms that are driving change. Mobile phones and the internet are helping to release the dynamism of African society. State-owned monopoly telephone companies were, for too long, a barrier to African ingenuity – due to waiting lists, high prices and unreliable services – but now a thriving local ICT sector is part of the solution, not the problem. In many of Africa’s largest cities, smartphones can now be obtained for under USD100. They have the equivalent computer power of a PC that would have cost over USD3,000 a decade earlier. With cheap data packages and free Wi-Fi, smartphones can be used to start a business, or to find a job.
The ICT sector has proven to be a strong driver of GDP growth in nations across the world. From developing countries such as India and the Philippines, to developed nations such as the United States of America and Ireland, the ICT sector has contributed to the success of each of these nation’s economies, the advancement of its people’s skills and capabilities and positioning the nation as a place for global firms to more efficiently do business.
The ICT sector is socially and economically relevant to Africa in that it has been the major economic driver in Sub-Saharan Africa over the past decade. Although mobile and internet penetration remains comparatively low in Africa, the opportunity in ICT for Africa is significant. Provided the ICT market continues its impressive double digit growth, expenditures in ICT within Africa could exceed USD 150 billion by 2016