Information and communication technology is driving the new “knowledge-based” economy in the developed and developing world. However, internet access remains comparatively low in Africa, with internet penetration at 20% for the continent.
There’s free Facebook, mobile banking, and the promise of cashless societies and digitised land records. And from Accra in the west to Kigali in the east, a spray of “tech hubs” talk about “leapfrogging” technology and incubating start-ups.
Such are the giddy promises of Africa’s “fourth industrial revolution” – a giant step forward into the digital world which the Guardian is reporting on for the next two weeks. Some are salivating that it will amount to the renaissance of a marginalised continent, while others soberly warn of the hype.
By 2020 there will be more than 700m smartphone connections in Africa – more than twice the projected number in North America and not far from the total in Europe, according to GSMA, an association of mobile phone operators. In Nigeria alone 16 smartphones are sold every minute, while mobile data traffic across Africa is set to increase 15-fold by 2020.
Countries are beginning to see that low internet adoption is becoming a hindrance to their economies, with 140 countries creating a specific broadband plan, compared to just 15 in 2005. As a result, many African countries, including Zambia, are looking to develop their fiber optic networks.
Just as mobile telephony has had a massive impact on economies in Africa, the hope is that the internet will also have a transformative impact.
According to the McKinsey report, governments need to focus on three types of initiatives – promoting access and literacy, creating a favorable regulatory environment, and e-government services. These all face challenges, including massive investments in curriculums and equipment and receiving pushback from incumbent parties who will be disrupted by change. But the benefits far outweigh the costs.