Decoding the digital revolution for Africa

By Alline Akintore –

There is no better time to determine how we shall master the digital revolution, the question is how.

On April 8, Professor Calestous Juma, reknown Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, hosted a Twitter Q&A session titled “How can Africa master the digital revolution?”; the session was an opportunity for Tweeps to engage on a topic that shall headline the upcoming World Economic Forum Africa Conference to be hosted in Kigali this May.

Over the course of the Q&A, Professor Juma drove some key points home: Africa needs to prioritise digital technologies as it does critical infrastructure (like roads, electricity); he touched on the need to create environments where startups can morph into corporations that compete globally; and last (certainly not least), he pointed out the need to reinvent education in Africa to train a generation of youth that will play a pivotal role in the digital revolution.

The last point could not be overstated. Here is an interesting statistic: just over 42 per cent of Africa’s (and Rwanda’s) population, is below the age of 14 today and 11 million Africans join the labor market every year – education systems have to be overhauled to ensure this cerebral reserve is harnessed to power the digital revolution.

They will need the skills to develop and use emerging technologies to be competitive tomorrow.

Here in Rwanda, a radical change to our education system to strengthen skills development, as is currently underway, is vital: deliberate efforts to foster innovation by creating strong linkages between academia, startups and industry (I intentionally make a distinction between startups and industry) would be a game-changer
Even more riveting: Africa’s population will grow from 1.3 billion in 2020 to 2.4 billion in 2050. As we think about how to accelerate innovation in Africa to tap into this potential market and to boost productivity as to improve our way of life, there remains the reality of how this revolution shall transform our economies and alter employment.

An example is the tectonic shift caused by the ‘Shared Economy’, powered by digital technologies. AirBnB has shaken up the hospitality industry and only recently we watched taxi (cab) drivers in Paris and in New York City take to the streets to protest against Uber, at times assaulting Uber drivers.

Uber is yet to reach Kigali: one has to wonder what shall happen when this happens…or when driverless cars make it to our streets.

What we do today may make all the difference: Professor Juma highlighted a number of things that have to be done and areas for policy makers to look into to ensure that the continent masters the digital revolution.

I have two ideas that I think would compliment these ideas: one is that the policies need to be implemented with a degree of systems-level thinking, design and modeling to configure how our countries truly master the digital revolution. It cannot be reactive and haphazard or we risk losing out to countries that shall pour products into our markets and leave us behind.

But given our limited resources and the environmental concerns of our time, how can we master the digital revolution whilst using fewer resources and causing minimal impact to the environment?

The linear trend that links resource consumption to economic growth probably presents trade imbalances for our country that has to import a number of raw materials, etcetera.

Here in Rwanda we must couple our innovations to radically new business models that transform consumption and the waste associated with it – my second idea is to foster digital revolution in a circular economy.

Rwanda (and Africa at large) can position itself to tap into regional and global supply chains to create value using digital technologies in a circular economy framework – the added benefit includes greater job creation and driving innovation.

I am curious to hear what you think about a circular economy for Rwanda: from my vantage point the economics add up and I stand convinced that we cannot speak of the digital revolution and leave out how to maximize it to create circular economies in Africa.

To be frank I have more questions than answers: a lingering one being Africa’s drive for invention versus adoption of technologies. I would appreciate your thoughts (tweet or email me).

Professor Juma’s Twitter session was quite insightful and I am looking forward to more answers from the WEF meet.

The writer is a tech enthusiast

Source: The New Times

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