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How technology can accelerate Africa’s progress

How technology can accelerate Africa’s progress

Commentary

5 min read

A technician of California-based robotics company Zipline launches a drone in Muhanga, Rwanda.

New global networks have created connections between people, organisations and nations, unleashing dramatic opportunities for development. But unless developing nations create the right conditions for progress, investing in industry and innovation, while building state capacity and skills, there is a risk that a further digital divide opens up between developed and developing countries. And rather than try to apply patches later, we need to focus efforts on making it run at the same speed across the board today.

The technologies connecting the modern world are among humanity’s greatest accomplishments. A small business in Tunis can download open source software developed in Tallinn. A student of the University of Botswana can read the latest research from Berkeley. And startups, such as Kenya’s CardPlanet, can make the transition to Silicon Valley, partnering with accelerators to help them grow their business.

But as a paper our Institute released this week argues, most of this progress is being driven by people, not government – and politicians in advanced countries need to master the implications of this revolution to solve various problems that they have found intractable for generations and manage people through the challenges that technological advances present. This is arguably even more important for developing nations, who in an increasingly rich marketplace of ideas can source new thinking, seek innovative partnerships and accelerate their progress.

In Africa, a number of nations have begun to embrace such an approach.

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Rwanda has the world’s first drone-port, which means it can transport essential supplies, including medicine, to people in remote places. In Nigeria, e-vouchers are provided to farmers via their mobile phones, so that they can buy fertiliser and high-quality seeds to improve their yields. In Liberia, one of the pilots we are currently working on with the government is mapping schools via GPS, so that they can improve access to and quality of education by better allocating scarce resources.

Across the continent there are numerous other examples of such innovations already changing lives, and in a region bursting with youth, many young people are quickly adopting and adapting technology to suit their own needs, as well as those of their nations. But many places still lack basic technological infrastructure: only one in four have access to electricity. To put this in context: in the US, nearly 100% of urban homes had power by 1940, while today future-looking countries such as Estonia are building data embassies.

Tony Blair visits the FabLab, an innovation hub in the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) park in Kigali, Rwanda.

Off-grid solutions such as M-Kopa in Kenya are helping, and cheap solar panels are now affixed to even the most basic housing in many places. But digital government, mobile money and smart cities will struggle to be transformative without broad access to electricity. In a modern economy it is an essential foundation element and that’s why we work with governments to get it right. In Rwanda, the government is rolling out its national strategy for universal access to electricity by using a range of technologies including solar systems. In Guinea, generation capacity is set to increase three-fold thanks to two large, new hydropower plants. We also provide support on power sector development to the governments of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Ethiopia.

Similarly, only a third of Africans have access to the internet – a figure that is growing with the decreasing cost of smartphones, but which needs to increase more rapidly for the continent to thrive.

Beyond getting this crucial building block in place, developing country governments also need to get three other factors right to grow their economics, reduce poverty, create jobs and allow for new industries and innovations to flourish.

First, is the political system and the extent to which it allows and rewards the emergence of progressive governments.

In too many cases in the developing world, there is little political capital or incentive to promote catalytic investment or institutional reform; the system ends up being one where elites simply share the spoils. In many countries political support comes from businesses with little incentive to innovate or to see an improved enabling environment. But where government has done better at forging this consensus, such as in Ethiopia, investments in irrigation, transport, and power have resulted in fast growth and rising incomes.

Second, is a targeted policy framework which enables a strong domestic private industry, encourages investment, and builds a skilled workforce. Developing the private sector will require going beyond simple tax and trade debates and putting in place a modern industrial policy, which helps sectors with strong economic potential to compete in ever-globalised markets. And developing skills will require investment in primary education, public-private partnerships such as the one undertook by Liberia as well as innovative developments like the Gashora Girls Academy in Kigali, which teaches coding and empowers young women.

Third is state capacity. Across much of the developing world, governments lack the systems, structures and skills to deliver the reforms needed to help them prosper. This is where the international community can help. Aid and development policy needs to focus on helping visionary local leaders to govern, solve problems – including through technological solutions - and build the institutions they need to thrive in the 21st Century.

This can be done by collectively focusing on the delivery of a few specific outcomes – such as providing electricity access to the entire population, delivering learning outcomes for school-age children or creating a certain number of jobs and livelihoods. In this way governments and development partners can seek out technological solutions that are relevant to a political, economic and social agenda and thus fit-for-purpose, contextual solutions can be found. By increasingly using this type of approach, countries like Ghana and Zambia have made strides in areas like education and agriculture, that incorporate technological solutions.

The need for this is apparent: disruptive change in the West has brought many benefits, but also some upheaval. If harnessed correctly, technology presents an opportunity for more stability, progress and a future where no nations are left behind.

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