The increasing disparities in wealth are causing rage worldwide, with global protests over corruption, bonuses, and tax evasion. Large numbers of unemployed youth fall outside formal markets and public services.
People are demonstrating not only for democratic inclusion, but also to change the form of democratic inclusion – traditional multiparty politics is losing the ability to command younger populations, with party membership and voter participation going down worldwide.
Still, there is a revolution going on in our world. The Internet and mobile phones were widely credited with the ‘death of distance’, and the rise of mobile broadband may be widely credited with the ‘death of geography’. Mass connectivity via mobile phones will exceed the global population of 7 billion in 2014.
But where is Africa?
I remember in the mid-90s as Minister of Communications in the Mandela Cabinet that there were 600,000 mobile phones in sub-Saharan Africa. Today it exceeds 750 million and is one of the fastest growing markets. No aid dollars drove this digital revolution. It was innovation; game changers like the prepaid card and demand for the right to communication from users. It was the appropriate policy and regulatory frameworks and freeing up of spectrum, that gave certainty and predictability to private investors. Most importantly it was getting our presidents out of the clutches of securocrats and to understand that communication as a right of citizens was our best protection of democracy.
Today technology is changing our world – the way we live, work, educate ourselves, buy goods and services and transfer money. It determines the way in which our future societies will be organized.
How do we ensure Africa rides the next wave of the digital revolution? What do we need to do to stop being left behind again in development?
Half the population on our continent is under 25. It is our demographic dividend. While the populations of most continents are aging, ours grows younger. Are we hoping to be the factory or the farm of the future or the center of the global knowledge economy? What we do in this sector will decide our growth trajectory. Technology is driven by young people. They are the most connected generation in the history of humanity.
So what are the key challenges we confront in Africa today and how can technology help us overcome them?
Poverty confronts half our population who live on $1.25 a day. Education is one of the key pathways out of poverty. But half the children out of school live in Africa and the quality of public education is generally poor. Our infrastructure is weak and regional integration lags far behind the rest of the world. That reduces intra-African trade and the movement of goods and services. Although we are the richest continent we have not learnt to value our assets. We act as 54 separate countries and weaken our bargaining power with powerful economies and trading blocs. We have not benefitted from the commodities boom in the past decades.
Now we can harness the digital broadband revolution to drive a entrepreneurial and livelihoods approach to our key assets; our land and agricultural potential to feed Africa and the world through a modern, technologically-savvy smallholder farmers model. Farmers, mainly women, have been incredibly empowered by being able to negotiate prices for their crops with middle men because they know market prices now.
We can build on the incredible talent coming out of the technology hubs in Africa. In Nairobi, one of the cutting edges of new technology, public innovation, has produced some of the most successful applications. It is estimated that anywhere up to 20% of the Kenyan GDP is circulating on the back of mobile platforms like M-pesa, putting effective financial services into the hands of the previously unbanked.
Over 17 million customers can deposit, withdraw and transfer money, pay bills, buy airtime from a network of agents that includes airtime resellers and retail outlets. Across Africa I see a multiplicity of such miracles are being born.
We can use technology to drive education content and teaching and to deliver telemedicine. Public information on lifestyles, exercise, diets, breastfeeding and maternal and new-born care can be universally accessible and citizens empowered.
We can begin to see our citizens as the greatest ally for good governance. Governments can improve outcomes on public expenditure by breaking down budgets and making it transparent for citizens to follow the money and demand accountability at a local level, in schools, clinics and local governments. Citizen engagement is essential for effective development, strengthening the quality of policymaking and the “science” of service delivery with improved social accountability.
We live in the world of the ‘Internet of Things’, a universe of around 9 billion connected devices which could reach a trillion by 2025. Convergence of technology, a dream in my term in government, is now a reality. Mobile broadband is growing faster than any technology in human history averaging 30% per year. And it is driven by private sector investment.
Five countries now have mobile broadband penetration in excess of 100 connections per capita (Singapore, Japan, Finland, Korea and Sweden). By the beginning of 2013, 32 economies had mobile-broadband subscription penetration in excess of one subscription for every two inhabitants, compared with just 13 countries at the beginning of 2012. There are more than 70 countries where more than half the population now has access to the Internet.
While the impact of mobile over the past decade on our continent has been nothing short of a game-changer, there is a larger revolution for progress waiting. Just as we leapfrogged into the digital infrastructure of the mid-nineties we can today leapfrog the PC era into the marriage of mobile broadband and the Internet: we can be in the top league if we had the political will and build a smart partnership between government, the private sector, civil society and citizens.
But we need to support an entrepreneurial approach to public innovation driven by public demand and needs. Today it is policy, regulatory and investment frameworks that will determine the future of Africa’s economic success: broadband licenses and spectrum are not cash cows for government in the short term. They are the foundations for long-term economic success. Otherwise broadband will remains out of reach in many countries in Africa.
While there is no single recipe that is likely to work for all countries – instead, countries need to relate the options they choose for universalising broadband to their market needs.
None of this is rocket science. We need transparency in the way licenses are issued. We need predictability and certainty of policy and regulation. We need to drive digital literacy in our schools and communities. We need to eliminate any tariffs on the inputs into the broadband value chain. And Africa needs to use its bargaining power to ensure that we benefit in the manufacturing value chain from this broadband boom. DM
Jay Naidoo is a member of the UN Broadband Commission which held its 8th Meeting in New York recently.
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