Unlocking Africa's Economic Transformation: Insights and Challenges from Digitalization and Technology Roundtable

August 31, 2023

Experts engaging in thought-provoking discourse during the session

UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa

Tokyo, 20 July 2023 – The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Institute of Future Initiatives (IFI) at the University of Tokyo co-hosted a Roundtable Discussion centered on the theme of "Economic Transformation with Digitalization and Technology." The event took place at the University of Tokyo.

UNDP, a long-standing co-organizer of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), has played a substantial role in shaping Japan's development strategy for Africa in collaboration with the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other key partners. In view of TICAD 9 to be organized in Japan in 2025, the University of Tokyo and UNDP jointly organized this roundtable, based on an MOU concluded in 2018.  

During the session, Dr. Raymond Gilpin, Chief Economist and Head of the Strategy, Analysis, and Research Team at the UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa, led discussions alongside ten experts specializing in African development. They delved into the potential and envisioned roles of digitalization and technological integration as catalysts for economic transformation across Africa.

Gilpin initiated the discussion by exploring the potential roles that digital technology could play in Africa. He emphasized early in his presentation about the need for a radical change in the formation of economic development models, in light of the shortcomings of past models.

He also highlighted UNDP’s Digital Strategy 2022-2025 as a potential guideline for crafting new development strategies that harness the effective utilization of digital technology. Gilpin argued that technology could enhance efficiency, mitigate information disparities, extend access to global markets, and thus render African economies more inclusive and resilient.

Gilpin wrapped up his talk by discussing how significant obstacles like substantial costs, apprehensions about e-governance's credibility, and gender inequality present major impediments to realizing technology adoption that benefits everyone inclusively Furthermore, Gilpin emphasized the need to carefully consider the contexts in which digital economic transformations take place given these factors.   

Gilpin (left) giving his presentation at the onset of the session

UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa

Dr. Alexandros Gasparatos, Associate Professor at the Institute of Future Initiatives (IFI) at the University of Tokyo, responded to Gilpin's presentation by elaborating on the potential of digital technology to enhance productivity and efficiency, particularly in the agricultural sector. He also highlighted how the effective utilization of technology, already underway among smallholders and consumers, has enabled market expansion. Despite this optimism, Gasparatos cautioned the Roundtable by underscoring the importance of preventing digital technologies from exacerbating existing inequalities.

Following Gasparatos, Dr. Aya Suzuki, Professor at the Graduate School of Frontier Science at the University of Tokyo, mentioned that while the current emphasis on startups and its rapid growth are notable, we should not expect that the startups can solve everything. She argued that established, large-scale traditional infrastructure should not be overshadowed, as it plays a central role in creating an environment conducive to digital integration. Suzuki also addressed the issue of trust among African citizens in information provided by digital technology. She suggested that while digital technology cannot replace traditional infrastructure, it can serve as a supplementary tool.  

Echoing these sentiments, other speakers underscored the significance of fundamental infrastructure. Dr. Christian Otchia, Associate Professor at the Graduate School of International Development at Nagoya University, emphasized the advantages brought by mobile money, including increased investment opportunities by encouraging migration from urban to rural areas. Yet, he balanced these benefits by stressing the necessity of basic infrastructure, highlighting its absence as a significant challenge in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Similar to Suzuki, Otchia concluded that advancing basic infrastructure is pivotal for the progress of digital technology.

Ms. Izumi Ohno, Professor of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS)/ Senior Research Advisor to the JICA Ogata Research Institute, concurred with Otchia's assessment of the complementary roles digital technology and traditional infrastructure should play. She also noted that economic transformation in Africa has been disappointing and emphasized the need for well-focused industrialization strategies to promote the shift of investment and labor from the current low productivity to higher productivity activities. She concluded that a context-specific solution is important to enable the implementation of digital technology in a sustainable manner.  

The conversation then shifted to the subject of peacebuilding, with Mr. Kenji Tajima, Senior Consultant at Koei Research & Consulting Inc., sharing his experiences in Darfur, Sudan. He highlighted the potential of digital technologies like AI and social media to serve as communication channels between citizens and governments. Additionally, he suggested that technology could bridge the language gap between global languages used and local languages commonly spoken in each country.

Dr. Kensuke Fukushi, Professor and Director of the Institute of Future Initiatives (IFI) at the University of Tokyo, briefly touched on the potential of younger generations in Africa. He observed that many young Africans have acquired valuable knowledge and are eager to share it. He concluded by stating that this indicates a possible synergy between such willingness and digital technology, which can consequently enhance knowledge exchange in various areas.  

Like Otchia, Dr. Kinyua Laban Kithinji, Researcher of the Institute of Asian Cultures at Sophia University and Vice President of the Japan Society of Afrasian Studies (JSAS), also spoke about mobile money. He specifically mentioned M-PESA, a mobile money transfer system used in Kenya. Introducing the term “translated internet,” he underscored the potential of this technology as a tool accessible to a wider audience by adapting it to everyday use.

M-PESA was also highlighted by Mr. Naoshige Kinoshita, Deputy Head, African Development Bank Group Asia External Representation Office. He spoke about the potential of digital platforms through recounting experience on the effective use of social media by Tunisian citizens during uprisings. He described M-PESA’s potential as a mobile money service as “phenomenal”, emphasizing the diverse applications of numerous other digital services to address social issues in the fields such as agriculture, fishing and off-grid solution in the areas with limited grid connectivity.  

Dr. Takahiro Fukunishi, Senior Research Associate at the Development Studies Center and Professor at IDE-JETRO, shared insights from his extensive years of experience in Africa, highlighting the necessity of focusing on potential changes that digital technology can bring to the informal sector. Fukunishi stated that while the possible impact of digitalization on informal sectors requires further exploration, technology such as online shopping is already certainly changing people’s lives.

Finally, Dr. Tsuyoshi Kano, Associate Professor of the Kanazawa Institute of Technology and the Representative Director, ICT for Development Japan, highlighted Agri-Tech's untapped climate change potential, digitalization's breakthrough in farming through satellite, AI, and GRID tech, including AI-driven cost reductions and carbon credit income. Sub-Saharan Africa sees progress with 80+ mobile subscriptions per 100 people, doubled internet users, and projected 75% smartphone adoption by 2025. Challenges linger in high internet prices relative to GDP and delayed 5G adoption. He also discussed blockchain's governance potential, noting its transparency and immutability but stressing accurate data entry for success, as errors can persist and spread.

In response to Kano's remark on the blockchain, the moderator, Dr. Kazuyo Hanai, Project Assistant Professor of the Institute of Future Initiatives (IFI) at the University of Tokyo, pointed out that while Japanese corporates have a robust faith in blockchain technology at the tracing of the distribution of the minerals in the supply chain, there's a notable gap between this confidence and the actual performance and dependability of the minerals certification system in African mineral producing areas.

Throughout the discussion, both acknowledgments of achievement and concerns for the future were raised, highlighting the substantial potential held by digital technology in Africa. Ms. Hideko Hadzialic, Director of UNDP Representation Office Tokyo, concluded the Roundtable Discussion, appreciating participants for sharing diverse experiences and concrete ideas. She highlighted that UNDP nurtures an "inclusive, ethical, and sustainable digital society" in Africa, partnering with the University of Tokyo for pivotal progress and persistent academia collaboration, driving African digitalization toward prosperity and fairness. 

Group photo: Front left to right – Dr. Christian Otchia, Ms. Izumi Ohno, Ms. Hideko Hadzialic, Dr. Raymond Gilpin, Dr. Kazuyo Hanai, Dr. Aya Suzuki / Right to left back row – Dr. Alexandros Gasparatos, Mr. Kenji Tajima, Dr. Tsuyoshi Kano, Dr. Kinyua Laban Kithinji, Mr. Naoshige Kinoshita, Dr. Takahiro Fukunishi

UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa