Digital Government in Sub-Saharan Africa: Evolving Fast, Lacking Frameworks

Technology Policy Digital Government

Digital Government in Sub-Saharan Africa: Evolving Fast, Lacking Frameworks

Posted on: 14th March 2022
Hilda Barasa
Africa Policy Lead, Digital Government Unit

Our new five-part series, which includes an introductory outline, reports on the progress of digital government in major regions worldwide.

Sub-Saharan Africa: A rapidly evolving digital-government landscape, supported by regionwide initiatives, characterises the region although it is hampered by poor digital infrastructure and a lack of underpinning regulation.

  • Internet penetration in sub-Saharan Africa has increased tenfold over the past two decades, compared with a threefold increase in the rest of the world. Regional bodies, supported by international-development organisations, have implemented regionwide strategies that have prioritised digital government as an enabling pillar for the transformation of sub-Saharan economies. These in turn have facilitated efficiency and the sharing of best practice across countries, helping to drive steady gains against both the UN’s e-government and e-participation metrics.
  • The continent’s E-Government Development Index (EGDI) scores almost doubled from 0.2 in 2003 to 0.3914 in 2020. Despite these gains, the continent ranks consistently below the world average (0.37 in 2003 and 0.6 in 2020). This reflects the uneven pace of digital-government transformation across sub-Saharan Africa where significant differences exist between the top and bottom EGDI-performing countries.
  • Digital government is widely accepted as a key pillar for the growth of digital economies. In contrast to more developed regions, however, where its prioritisation means that dedicated resources are allocated to its delivery, digital government in sub-Saharan Africa is often integrated into broader national digital-economy strategies. This in turn impacts the number of public resources allocated specifically to its evolution.
  • Kenya, Mauritius, Rwanda, the Seychelles and South Africa emerge as regional leaders, with smaller and less developed economies tending to score considerably lower on the EGDI. Still, there are standout examples of smaller countries successfully implementing ambitious programmes, including Namibia with its Nam-X, an e-government interoperability system modelled on Estonia’s X-Road.

Figure 1 – The connections within a fully developed sub-Saharan African digital-government ecosystem

Source: TBI

Supranational political bodies and non-governmental organisations have supported citizens’ demands for more effective government by pushing digital transformation up the political agenda and helping to establish it as a strategic priority. As early as 1996, the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) adopted a resolution calling for increased information and communications technology (ICT) adoption in governments, with the aim of improving service delivery. More recently, the Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020-2030), developed by the African Union, identified digital government as a significant enabling factor for the digital transformation of economies in sub-Saharan Africa. Collaboration with the private sector has been crucial to the development of digital infrastructure and the pursuit of last-mile connectivity across many countries in this region.

Whole-of-Government Transformation: The Three Principles

Purposeful governance: Of 46 sub-Saharan countries, a total of 43 have established their own ICT ministries that are responsible for leading both the digitalisation of government and the wider economy, with the majority having a national digital-transformation strategy in place. The implementation of these strategies and policy frameworks is hampered by the absence of robust legislative and regulatory frameworks governing their execution, however. Data privacy and protection as well as cybersecurity are recognised as areas requiring comprehensive legislation in light of their importance to developing accessible, citizen-centric, secure public services. Only 25 sub-Saharan countries have comprehensive personal data-protection legislation while 37 have adopted laws on cybercrime.

Over the past two years, Covid-19 has driven a central approach in many countries, prompting new digital initiatives and government-wide efforts to address continuity of public-service delivery. For instance, Djibouti’s Ministry of Health used business-intelligence dashboards to centralise procurement, and streamline the supply chain of critical medical supplies while monitoring and ensuring their price stability nationally. It also employed these dashboards at the Ministry of Trade to monitor critical food imports to ensure that national needs were met and to maintain stability of resale prices amid national lockdowns.

Enabling infrastructure: Digital-ID systems are a core component of enabling infrastructure yet many countries still struggle to issue their citizens with a legal identity. It is estimated that more than 500 million people on the continent do not have any form of ID. Only 11 countries (Angola, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mauritius, Nigeria, Senegal, Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda) have national digital IDs with electronic components (for example, microchips or machine-readable barcodes) and associated public-service-delivery functions. South Africa is in the process of developing a new identity-management policy with digital IDs as an anchor and which contains an individual’s details from birth. In West Africa, the regional ECOWAS National Biometric Identity Card (ENBIC) was approved by heads of state back in 2015 but has only been fully implemented by Senegal to date.

Responsive institutions: Several countries have gone beyond the digitalisation of existing processes to implement a digital-by-design approach to public-service delivery. This involves the re-engineering and simplification of government services for an efficient and sustainable citizen experience regardless of the channel or platform used.

Innovative Platforms in Sub-Saharan Africa

The Ghana Community Network (GCNet) Trade Facilitation Platform is an online system providing an end-to-end solution for handling trade and customs operations at all sea and inland ports in the country. The system – based on a common digital platform for all relevant stakeholders (Ministry of Finance, Destination Inspection Scheme, Ghana Customs Excise and Preventive Service, Ghana Ports and Harbours Authority, and Internal Revenue Service) – ensures accurate “real-time” revenue accounting and reconciliation. This smart clearance system, which handles 98 per cent of all customs-revenue collection, has streamlined operations between customs officials and traders while sealing loopholes for tax evasion because goods are systematically tracked and monitored from their arrival to their destination.

Huduma Kenya is a government initiative that aims to transform public-service delivery by using a network of integrated platforms. The programme is a multi-channel approach that combines bricks-and-mortar Huduma centres across the country with the deployment of digital technologies to simplify transaction processes via automated services. It allows citizens to access and pay for services that range from birth certificates and ID-card applications to taxes and land rates as well as applications for the issuing of business permits that account for the socioeconomic contexts of different counties. On average, the centres handle approximately 30,000 transactions per day, covering 66 national and county-government services.

Rwanda’s e-government digital platform, Irembo, gives citizens access to more than 85 online services with plans underway to add an additional 100 within the next three years. From birth-certificate applications and driving-licence registrations to land-title transfers, Irembo has processed more than 2.7 million transactions from 2.4 million unique users (approximately 22 per cent of the population) since its launch in 2015. Use of the platform has significantly increased transparency in government, cutting down corruption, and leading to a boom in start-up activity and innovations.

Ethiopia’s Woreda Net is an e-government, terrestrial satellite-based network that provides internet connectivity and services, including video conferencing, to more than 900 federal, regional and local government offices, with the aim of improving administrative productivity and enhancing services.


Weighing up the Barriers and Opportunities

  • Internet access: Levels of connectivity are still low compared to other regions. Brookings estimates that internet penetration in sub-Saharan Africa averages 39.6 per cent compared to the global average of 62.7 per cent, preventing a significant proportion of the population from accessing digital-government services.
  • Legislative and regulatory frameworks: There is a lack of underpinning regulation to shape the operating context for digital government and thus build public confidence. Additionally, there are not enough well-resourced authorities enforcing existing legislation. For instance, the absence of a cross-cutting data-protection and privacy framework has undermined public confidence in the attempted rollout of digital-ID programmes in Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana and Uganda. According to the International Telecommunication Union’s ICT Regulatory Tracker, only six countries in the region have the regulatory base required to facilitate whole-of-government digital transformation.
  • Digital-skills gap: A digital readiness report by the Pathways for Prosperity Commission emphasises the need for technical and complementary digital-skills development for public-sector officials at national and regional levels as well as the broader public to ensure inclusive development.
  • Hard infrastructure: Investment of $100 billion is needed to achieve universal broadband access in Africa. This would support continental initiatives such as the African Continental Free Trade Area, which largely depends on the ability to leverage technology to create a single digital market.
  • Connect digital-services teams within government: To streamline their provision of digital services and information, governments should develop data-sharing platforms across public-sector agencies as well as protocols on how digital tools collect, manage and use data to inform decision-making.
  • Develop regulatory frameworks for data protection: To accelerate digital-government transformation, governments need to develop and refine data-protection laws that specify how data can be collected, processed and used both within and outside government.
  • Improve digital capability: Digital skills are a prerequisite for transformation both within government and throughout the wider economy. Investment to equip the continent’s young people with digital skills and literacy would allow sub-Saharan Africa to develop a critical mass of expertise in associated fields.
  • Build inclusive digital-ID systems: The majority of the “invisible billion” people globally without basic ID credentials live in sub-Saharan Africa. This limits their access to public services, social welfare and private-sector systems including financial platforms as well as other opportunities in the digital economy. Governments in the region must invest in building digital-ID systems designed with inclusivity, interoperability and privacy safeguards as prerequisites of digital-government transformation.

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