Digital Technologies Key to Unlocking Transformation in Africa

June 13, 2022
UNDP Regional Bureau Director for Africa Ms. Ahunna Eziakonwa Pre event TICAD8

Ms. Ahunna Eziakonwa UNDP Regional Bureau Director for Africa highlighted that digital transformation is a force to empower people, the planet and to engender prosperity.


Digital technology can be a fundamental force for change in Africa, helping to support economic growth, deepen democratic governance, and expand civil society engagement, according to panellists at the latest AFRI CONVERSE dialogue.

Opening the floor to the panel, Mr. Tetsuo Kondo, Director of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Tokyo, said as part of the lead-up to the 8th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD 8) in August 2022, the hybrid conversation between African and Japanese representatives will take a closer look at best practices and lessons learned initiated by international organisations, bilateral organisations and the private sector to promote digital technologies across the continent.

UNDP Regional Bureau Director for Africa Ms. Ahunna Eziakonwa highlighted that digital transformation is a force to empower people, the planet and to engender prosperity.

“The continent’s vast majority of young ‘digital natives’ have the potential to create a groundswell of digital innovations to solve many development challenges,” she said, adding that Africa is perhaps the only continent in a position to leapfrog its development because of where it is in its development journey.

However, while digital technology has the potential to act as a development catalyst many countries in Africa continue to have limited access to technology and are being left behind.

A vast portion of Africa still lacks access to the technology needed for school, work, health, or financial services. Figures from the International Finance Corporation show that only 40% of Africa’s population can access the internet, making it the world’s least connected continent.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also underscored the vulnerability of the digitally excluded, who have a harder time accessing vital information, and has increased the need for digital services to be made more universally available.

Ms. Eziakonwa noted that important issues like climate change and COVID-19 have resulted in development strategies losing momentum. “There are huge opportunities to harness the knowledge and science of digital technologies to make development initiatives more resilient to disasters,” she said.

Mr. Kazuhisa Arai, Chief Digital Officer for the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) said the agency’s digital transformation vision aims to create a society where everyone can achieve diverse well-being through digital technology and data.

In 2020, JICA established an office for STI (science, technology and innovation) and DX (digital transformation) within its Governance and Peacebuilding department.

“The JICA website will soon showcase our three transformations and nine action strategies in our approach to digital transformation. The use of digital technology is encouraged for better impact in sectors such as health, education, agriculture, environment and urban development, among others,” noted Mr. Arai. He added that JICA is accelerating its DX support in Africa toward and beyond TICAD8.

For the prosperity of Africa, he pointed out that JICA will promote DX for development together with partners such as UNDP, civil society, governments, the private sector and the Government of Japan.

“Through this [AFRI CONVERSE session] and other similar events, JICA expects to attract greater interest from potential partners in achieving the goals of African development, the Sustainable Development Goals and prosperity for all,” he said.

Mr. Atsushi Yamanaka, Senior Advisor of Digital Transformation, in the Office for Science, Technology, Innovations, Digital Transformation, Governance and Peacebuilding at JICA, highlighted some of JICA’s signature STI DX projects across Africa.

He explained that JICA currently has a substantial number of sector projects with significant STI/DX components across Africa.  These sectors range from health, water and sanitation, education, agriculture, industrial development, governance, human rights, disaster management, among others.

“In response to COVID-19, JICA has provided tele-medicine support to mitigate the situation in developing countries by remotely connecting Japanese medical specialists to local ICU medical personnel, and providing them with technical advice and capacity building activities,” said Mr. Yamanaka. He noted that the agency is also introducing digital innovations that can strengthen climate hazard early warning systems and related disaster preventions in Africa.

Mr. Yamanaka also mentioned about JICA’s initiative to mitigate malnutrition challenges using digital technology.  As agriculture, most notably the subsistence farming,  is the pillar for livelihood in a large part of Africa, JICA, in partnership with the Initiative for Food and Nutrition Security in Africa (IFNA), has co-developed an app to promote nutritional-sensitive food information such as consumption, production, and distribution in African communities and households.

Climate change is also one of the issue discussed during the session. In order to mitigate an unfolding water crisis in Africa, JICA and its partners are using satellite data to assess how much water is available in areas in lakes, water reservoirs, rice paddies for better water management in Madagascar and Senegal.

There was also presentation of JICA’s innovative digital technology initiative to combat child labour in Cacao industry in Core d’Ivoire.  JICA has also established a system with block-chain technology to precisely monitor the value-chains of cacao industries from production to final consumption. This prevents the production and consumption of chocolates products that use cacaos harvested using child labours.

Building an inclusive digital economy has long been a core economic development objective of Rwanda, and Mr. Yamanaka said JICA is helping to promote data driven innovations and enhanced service deliveries in Rwanda through public-private partnerships and to create a new digital innovation model to be synthesized it as the Rwanda Model that could be replicated in other African countries.

The Ambassador of Rwanda to Japan, H.E. Mr. Ernest Rwamucyo, said, “Rwanda has been working with multiple partners and Japan is a key partner in helping us convey the broader Japanese knowledge ecosystem to Rwanda and the rest of the continent.”

Rwanda has adopted the National Information Communications Infrastructure (NICI) policy and created a long-term plan to achieve full digitisation in four five-year stages. These stages were implemented as follows:

  • Stage one (2000-2005) prepared the groundwork for the ICT sector, including establishing institutional, legal and regulatory frameworks, as well as opening up the telecom market by reducing barriers for entry.
  • The second stage (2005-2010) concentrated on enhancing ICT infrastructure by establishing a national data centre that centralises information storage, management and protection, as well as uses cloud computing opportunities.
  • Stage three (2011-2015) focused on improving service delivery, such as the One Laptop Per Child programme to distribute laptops and electronic tablets in primary schools.
  • The final stage (2016-2020) the government targeted skills, private sector and community development, as well as improving and enhancing e-government and cyber security.

With the help of Japan and other partners, these interventions have seen 96.7 % geographical coverage and 96.6 % population coverage in 4G LTE services, as well as 81 % mobile penetration.

Although headway has been made in some areas, Mr. Rwamucyo  noted that challenges still remain in achieving full digitalisation. He highlighted low digital literacy, poor connectivity, outdated national digital policies and financial constraints as areas of concern.

To mitigate these challenges, Rwanda is promoting digital literacy through its Digital Ambassador Programme and has put in place guidelines and policies to increase connectivity and ICT investment.

“Bringing multiple stakeholders and sectors together to strengthen innovation ecosystems is essential to unlocking opportunities and ensuring sustainability,” he said.

UNDP and JICA advocate for digital transformation that is intentionally inclusive and puts people at the centre of Africa’s development. One of the opportunities to boost the development process is digital transformation of tech start-ups.

Ms. Amel Saidane, President of Tunisian StartUps and Founder and CEO of Betacube, agreed that digital transformation presents massive opportunities for startups in Africa and the rest of the developing world. “IT and startups, and innovation are the foundation of every economic player, model and economy these days. Startups are an opportunity to develop new solutions and solve economic problems, and also achieve socio-economic security and inclusion,” said Ms. Saidane.

She, however, stressed that problems of digital identity, among other issues, are preventing small and medium-sized enterprises (SMSEs) from accessing credit, despite representing 80 % of businesses in Africa. In order to fulfil the potential of startups in Africa, she said players need to be aware of the challenges and address these adequately properly.

Ms. Saidane noted that the major benefit of a digital identity for MSMEs, especially in emerging markets, is that it helps improve financial inclusion - bridging the trade finance gap. It will also reduce the Know Your Customer (KYC) and Customer Due Diligence (CDD) costs for financial institutions, which in turn helps MSMEs receive better credit terms.

She stressed that in order to fulfil the potential of startups in Africa, partners and investors need to be aware of the challenges they face and address them properly. “Developing a continental narrative and solutions for startups is vital, yet we should not lose sight of the local context and challenges.”

Reminding the panel of Africa’s abundant untapped business potential, she said “the bigger the challenges, the bigger the opportunities, and we’re at the right place in time to solve these problems together.”

The hybrid session was viewed by 425 online audience across the globe and had in-person audience of young and vibrant students from Africa studying in Japan as future generation leaders, who could have opportunities to interact with high-level speakers in identifying potential entry points for youth engagement and bridge between Japan and Africa.

For the prosperity of Africa, UNDP and JICA ensured it would promote DX for development together with wide-ranging partners such as development agencies, civil society, governments, the private sector and Japan - leading up to and beyond TICAD8.

To watch the proceedings: