Jacques Moulin, Director General of IDATE: « Digital Africa is a pillar of post-Covid economic and social development

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Each year, IDATE Digiworld publishes its Observatory of the Digital Economy in Africa. The DigiWorld Yearbook Africa takes a multi-sectoral approach to identifying and analysing the impact of new technologies on the continent. Jacques Moulin, Director General of IDATE, outlines for CIO Mag the main observations for the year 2020 of this reference publication, more than a year after the start of the Covid-19 crisis, which has accelerated the emergence of new digital uses and learning. Interview.

CIO Mag – In this particular period of pandemic, what are your observations on the future of digital in Africa? What is the main conclusion of your study?

Jacques Moulin: In this particular year, we are analysing the data on the digital economy in Africa through the prism of digital inclusion. The pandemic and the confinements have proven that the speed of adoption of digital uses is a key differentiator for nations that can integrate into international competition, but also be part of a sustainable and responsible development.

We need to understand that there is a difference between pre-Covid and post-Covid African society. In recent years, GDP growth on the African continent has been relatively robust and should have accelerated by 2020. The halt in international trade and the decline in commodity prices have dealt a severe blow to growth.

Today, Africa faces several challenges, including, of course, the economic shock of the pandemic, but also the collapse of oil prices. In addition to these two elements, there are structural challenges, a demographic growth rate that remains very high, an industry that is still in its infancy, and territorial and gender inclusion that is still too timid.

Within the IDATE community, we feel that the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted two main aspects that need to be addressed quickly. The first concerns plans for the development of the infrastructure essential for a responsible sustainable economy. The second is education and training. These are the prerequisites for supporting the jobs of tomorrow in Africa and for taking advantage of the particularly strong demographic growth. In particular, this calls for an assessment of the major projects relating to broadband. And on the capacity to imagine new, more inclusive and more « modern » education systems, in the sense of preparing for the needs of the 4.0 economy. For if Africa is slow to organise itself in the process of its industrialisation and digital transformation, it will be difficult for it to compete at international level. This is, in fact, a common challenge with the African continent, in very different contexts. Namely: building the infrastructure conditions and thinking about training methods to facilitate the emergence of a « digital » society that is progressive, sustainable and responsible.

Has the digital sector been relatively spared by the economic and health crisis?

There are positive indicators. The post-Covid recovery is effective in Africa, even if it remains uneven between states. And some sectors, including digital, are driving this recovery. The digital sector has notably supported the development of traditional activities. In our study, we show that the impact of the crisis on digital markets in Africa – which reached €98 billion in 2019 – has not been as strong as for sectors of the traditional economy.

The African Development Bank (AfDB) predicted a 5-point decline in economic growth in Africa in 2019. Currently, we are only at 2 points of withdrawal in the digital economy sector. Hence the need for Africa to continue its transformation and its mutation towards digital and to put in place the necessary infrastructures to embark on the digital lever as a factor of inclusion.

The development of infrastructures is indeed necessary to guarantee the digital inclusion of all populations. In order to fight against the digital divide, should we focus on fixed or mobile internet?

Work must also continue on the development of fixed infrastructures. On this issue, countries are experiencing very disparate developments. Mauritius and South Africa, for example, have chosen to provide fibre to the home. In other countries, efforts remain too weak and would require much more investment. There is a great opportunity to develop fibre, but this investment choice cannot be made by operators alone. Donors and private funding must be involved.

China has seized this opportunity and we are seeing a very strong growth in Chinese investment in ICT infrastructure in Africa. In 2018, the Middle Kingdom announced a record amount of 60 billion dollars devoted to the development of Africa. This raises questions for Europe and the United States. Within the IDATE community, with our 80 members, the majority of whom have establishments, partners or clients in Africa, we are campaigning for Europe to also take up this issue. Indeed, we cannot take into account the evolution of the global economy without taking into account the African economy. And this issue is a necessity, as well as an opportunity. And not only for Africa, but also for the rest of the world.

Can digital transformation be reconciled with the Sustainable Development Goals, including the fight against climate change?

We are among those who believe that digital technology can limit the need for energy and electricity. Of course, everything depends on the commitments made by governments, industrialists and economic players, who shape and design this digital transformation. Thanks to research and development, new technologies, which are natively « green by design », make it possible to reduce the carbon footprint and energy consumption. The reconstruction of a new post-Covid economic, political and social order is a challenge that concerns all economic and political actors. And actions are structuring the new societal dynamics. Digital technology can thus help accelerate the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals in all sectors: agriculture, e-health, education, etc.

For training, it is essential to prepare students, but also employees of private and public organisations, with a general culture of digital and technological issues. In the same context, African governments must capitalise on the « success stories » that the continent has to offer. They must accelerate their investments in the industries of the future and in initial and continuing education programmes, and support for digital entrepreneurship.

Source: CIO Mag