Lessons learned in the fire: Preliminary observations on Africa’s digital transformation

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Lessons learned in the fire: Preliminary observations on Africa’s digital transformation

Odilile Ayodele

10 Nov 2020

6min min read
  • Mass media and international relations

ver the first three quarters of 2020, almost every country on the continent has had to grapple with parallel disasters: the increasing downgrade of their countries’ economic health and the battle against COVID-19. Although preliminary predictions promising widespread death and destruction due to the global pandemic have not materialised, it is not too far-fetched to say that African countries have been walking through the proverbial fire.

The numerous inefficiencies inherent in most African states have become even more apparent. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the area of digital transformation (DT), which has affected every sector from diplomacy, business, to public governance. We can immediately glean three preliminary lessons from this crisis: infrastructure has power; speedy DT is a matter of survival; and innovation and ownership are linked to social justice.


Digital transformation has quickly, and incorrectly, become a catch phrase for the digitisation of services and processes. Mark Samuels provides the most comprehensive description of digital transformation: “Digital transformation involves using digital technologies to remake a process to become more efficient or effective. The idea is to use technology not just to replicate an existing service in a digital form, but to use technology to transform that service into something significantly better”. In other words, digital transformation relates to the rate of change as well as the rate of technology adoption; it means much more than merely putting government , or private sector, services online and opening up a social media account. It is about how the state and its citizens can engage with each other in more efficient and forward-thinking ways.

Njunguna Ndung'u and Landry Signé underscore three major stumbling blocks to Africa’s digital transformation. First, its low education rate. With a relatively low literacy rate as a result, there is a mismatch between skills and labour. Increasing infrastructure would not yield significant dividends without the workforce able to harness it. Second, agile governance is needed to integrate into the global value chain. Third, investment in physical and digital infrastructure is important. African countries only invest about 1.1% of their GDP into their digital transformation in comparison to 3.2% spent by more developed nations.

A major challenge for African countries is that their backbone infrastructure is owned by primarily by private sector actors. What that means is that private sectors have leverage in how the infrastructure is ultimately utilised. Undoubtedly, the ability to control the operations of multinationals through regulation and legislation lies with the state. Yet, when the state’s agenda is held to ransom to the third-party actors, infrastructure owners become extra-regional powerhouses.

In the 21st century, the real ‘scramble for Africa’ is not just for access to Africa’s raw materials, but rather control of its technological markets, specifically its ICT markets. Steve Song’s 2019 review of Africa’s Telecoms Infrastructure underscored several trends including the fact that technological giants such as Google and Facebook have entered the African undersea cable market. Likewise, the Infrastructure Consortium for Africa’s report on financing trends in Africa for 2018, notes that ICT benefited from over US$7.1 billion from private sector investment in ICT infrastructure. A critical thread that emerged was the importance of decentralisation of state policy in this area to encourage further investment. Yet, not all state economic models on the continent lean towards decentralisation. Should that, therefore, exclude them from meaningful private sector funding?

"In the 21st century, the real ‘scramble for Africa’ is not just for access to Africa’s raw materials, but rather control of its technological markets, specifically its ICT markets."

Governance and government

The pandemic has shone a brighter spotlight on the challenges of government and governance in the context of capital drought and rigid policy regimes. Across the African continent, no matter the structure of the state (i.e. multiparty democracy, personality focused or liberation identity), they all have a similar top-down approach to government, and governance. Yet, in the face of lack of capital for infrastructure, such an approach is arguably inappropriate.

Estonia and India have pioneered models on how local government can function effectively online. David Eaves and Ben McGuire explain that Estonia, in particular, has taken a more comprehensive approach to digital transformation, which allows for database sharing between departments. Estonia, and even Canada, are often lauded as North Star examples of effective digital transformation. However, their models are not necessarily the most suitable for many African countries, which are bogged down by enormous infrastructural weakness, including the lack of basics such as stable electricity, and the digital divide. Access to the information and communications technologies is the cornerstone of digital transformation, yet internet penetration only stands at approximately 39.3% of the African population.

In a number of African countries, attempts at digital transformation have proved lacking because the public services are already strained due to poor planning and under capacitation. For instance, in South Africa, the South African Revenue Service (SARS) tried to digitise its services. It was regularly hampered by bureaucratic struggles alongside accusations of corrupt tender processes. In addition to infrastructure-related issues, there have also been several problems with the integration of a vertically segregated system. In other words, the SARS database is not fully integrated with other state departments, which slows down the transfer of information on taxpayers. However, there is evidence that these problems are being addressed. The speed of resolution will primarily rely on political will on the part of legislators.

"The pandemic offers African countries the opportunity to speed up the closing of digital gaps because there is now a chance to negotiate better deals with the private sector."

However, countries like Ethiopia and Rwanda have been blazing the trail with regards to digital transformation on the continent. Still, their systems have not been able to match the successes of Estonia arguably because of the rigidness of their states. A solution to this challenge could be deepening of continental cooperation, and the ultimate reorganisation of individual states. What that means in practical terms, is that alongside bringing into fruition the promises of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, local government programmes in individual states have to be redesigned horizontally to speak to one another.

The pandemic offers African countries the opportunity to speed up the closing of digital gaps because there is now a chance to negotiate better deals with the private sector. There is also an opportunity to intensify their continental cooperation, which has already begun as we have witnessed with the deployment of the COVID-19 joint continental strategy and related response fund.

Innovation and ownership are a social equity issue

Cross-national dependencies are part and parcel of the nature of global value chains. However the increased gig economy presents a potential danger and a possible flash point for social unrest in developing countries. The gig economy refers to a flexible market system that favours the use of independent contract works, as well as job-sharing arrangements.

Writing for the Times' Future of Work and Collaboration report, MaryLou Costa reports that more companies are looking towards tapping into a ‘borderless’ talent pool, and are shifting towards remote working. For African governments, this presents a catch-22 situation. On the one hand, it means that many more young people may be able to gain employment outside the borders of their countries, without having to physically leave. This shift began, at a limited scale, pre-pandemic with African remote workers servicing clients in Europe and the US.

On the other hand, less well-resourced African countries risk losing access to the best and brightest of their human capital. The risk to the social fabric of African countries is that the digital gig economy forces many people into work situations that are precarious with no social security net to support them. For digital workers, in particular, their apparent security in the face of the pandemic is compromised by the fact that they now have to compete with many other workers. This means that compensation rates would be lower, and there would be less recourse available if the work became unavailable.

What does this all mean?

In the face of a global pandemic, and a forced shift in global dynamics, the tighter embrace of digital technologies is inevitable. There is a Yoruba proverb: A kì í fi iná sórí òrùlé sùn (if one’s roof is on fire, one can’t go to sleep). Simply put, you can’t rest until you solve your problems. African states have to address the crisis that they are currently facing pragmatically rather than ideologically.

Governments, and diplomats, need to work to make the entire system more responsive to the needs of their constituents. More importantly, African states need to think through and negotiate an alternate way to scale up digital technologies throughout the continent in a way that does not exacerbate inequality. The continent has the highest number of regional institutions, but few successes to show for them.

In terms of governance of digital transformation, including in the area of cybersecurity, African countries are wholly unprepared. It is not clear whether this is a function of design, or due to leaders who do not have a comprehension about how important this issue is. A case in point was the failure of the Malabo Convention on cybersecurity which was only ratified by 5% of the countries signed to it.

Ultimately, African states, collectively and individually, have to avoid the emergence and rooting of a monopsony. For workers and innovators, the existence of only one major buyer of labour or goods does not bode well for market prices or the treatment of workers.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA.

(Graphic: Getty Images)