The Role of ICT in Fostering Economic Development.

To generate economic growth that leads to sustainable development, Africa must shift its focus to retaining and creating wealth, better managing its resources, fostering inclusiveness, moving up on global value chains, diversifying its economies, optimizing the energy mix, and placing human capital at the centre of policymaking. For this to happen, African policy must foster investment in research, development, and innovation (R&D&I) to reboot the continent’s economic structures and catch up technologically with the rest of the world. Innovation, and the digital information technology that accompanies it, has become a necessary component of any effort to address such challenges as food security, education, health, energy, and competitiveness. The world is driven by innovation: unless African policymakers reap the potential benefits of R&D&I, the global divide will keep growing. The problem is that innovation is talked about and debated, but not strategized. It is here, paradoxically, that the COVID-19 pandemic, despite all the economic and social devastation it has caused, provides an opportunity for African countries to innovate and go digital. African countries will have to rebuild their economies. They should not merely repair them; they should remake them, with digitalization leading the way.

So far, civil societies seem to be more ready than policymakers to embrace digital technology. With no help from government, the digital technology industry has grown in Africa—through incubators and start-ups, tech hubs and data centres. Information and communication technology (ICT) activities are spreading across the continent, and young Africans are responding with digital technology to the challenges posed by COVID-19. For example, at an ICT hub in Kenya, FabLab created Msafari, a people-tracking application that can trace the spread of infections. A similar application, Wiqaytna6, was developed in Morocco. In Rwanda, the government is demonstrating what enlightened policies can achieve. The country has invested heavily in digital infrastructure—90 percent of the country has access to broadband internet, and 75 percent of the population has cell phones. Early in the pandemic Rwanda parlayed that technological prowess into developing real-time digital mapping to track the spread of COVID-19, expanded telemedicine to reduce visits to clinics, and created chatbots to update people on the disease. These are promising endeavours, but digitalization is not widespread in Africa. Rwanda is the exception. Only 28 percent of Africans use the internet, a digital divide that prevents the continent from taking full advantage of digital technology’s ability to mitigate some of the worst effects of the pandemic. That slow spread of internet technology also makes it difficult for the continent to leapfrog obstacles to sustainable development. To generate transformative growth, digitalization cannot be left mainly to civil society and the private sector. The socioeconomic divide in Africa feeds the digital divide, and vice versa. Digitalization needs to be scaled up forcefully by policymakers to unlock structural transformation.

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