“We find ourselves in the midst of the greatest information and communications revolution in human history. For many people, today’s increase in access to digital technologies brings more choice and greater convenience.
But “traditional development challenges are preventing the digital revolution from fulfilling its transformative potential.”
“Nearly 6 billion people do not have high-speed internet, making them unable to fully participate in the digital economy.”
This is how Jim Yong Kim, President of The World Bank Group, prefaces the report on Digital Dividends, which reveals that, although digital technologies have spread rapidly in much of the world, the broader development benefits from using these technologies are lagging behind.
Prior to the publication of this report, I had a conversation with Dr Mawaki Chango from Togo, during my African tech tour. He is a researcher, consultant and entrepreneur, founder of DIGILEXIS, an entity with the mission to contribute to the use of ICTs for social change.
Mawaki became an advocate for better ICT policies to help the society and let African policy makers understand that development is not all about taxes and monopolies. If they really want their nations to leverage the digital and advance economically, they need to think things through, not to be short-sighted, but instead to put in place effective policies, he says.
His words echo the key findings of the World Bank report.
“To deliver universal digital access, we must invest in infrastructure and pursue reforms that bring greater competition to telecommunications markets, promote public-private partnerships, and yield effective Regulation,” says Mr Kim.
Recently returned from the US diaspora, Mawaki is exploring the African market to decide where he can operate his consultancy with a decent and affordable access to internet. But he is finding out that operating a digital business in some African countries is quite challenging, the cost to connect at 2mbps or less in Togo when he arrived, was twice the salary of a local director.
How can anyone afford to run a digital business and sell their services at a competitive price with such an exorbitant rate, he asks? So he started in Cote d’Ivoire where the situation was less challenging.
Some countries like Cape Vert, he says, have taken drastic measures, to invest in affordable high speed internet and attract digital entrepreneurs.
“We must take advantage of this rapid technological change to make the world more prosperous and inclusive,” says the boss of the World Bank.
On the government role
What are the most pressing actions governments can take to accelerate internet access to the wider population?
Mawaki says: “It is a straightforward answer but on the other hand it is a difficult answer to get the government to embrace it. It is difficult to breakdown the monopoly situation because most of our governments heavily depend on tax revenues.”
Asking these governments to relax their grip and open up the market to new actors and drag down their revenues is a tough sell, he reckons.
“We need deeper studies that show over time, like in five years’ time, how by opening up the market, by regularising the market and encouraging competition, the different changes that can occur and their positive impact on the economy,” Mawaki says.
The World Bank report shows that: “The digital revolution can give rise to new business models that would benefit consumers, but not when incumbents control market entry.”
“What should countries do? Making the internet universally accessible and affordable should be a global priority. “
“Countries that are able to swiftly adjust to this evolving digital economy will reap the greatest digital dividends, while the rest are likely to fall behind.”
On entrepreneurial mindset
Mawaki also strongly believes in entrepreneurship for Africa’s economic and social development than the “so-called public aid for development”.
“There is no digital economy without digital entrepreneurs,” he says. Government support for entrepreneurship needs to span all categories of enterprises; not just giving a low level support to women to start a small biz with £30, but also businesses that need £10,000 or more, he says.
He wants to see ministries in charge of digital economy in Africa to really support digital entrepreneurs, to take their ideas to the next level by enabling the right access, putting appropriate tax measures and regulatory policies in place, to encourage these specific types of businesses that need a long time for R&D before they become profitable and not lumping them together with traditional businesses.
“We are not there yet and the problem for some of our countries is that they are not even taking that direction.” They put too much emphasis on those heavy investments like port, businesses with big trade; and traditional sectors of business.
He also regrets that often, decision makers in Africa do not tend to value their own people ‘s contribution. “They act as if their nationals have no agency, they have no contribution to make.”
He thinks that the diaspora can play a big role to enable a thriving digital economy in Africa and offers some ideas:
- Be prepared. “They need to make sure that the scene is well prepared. The good news is that they can prepare the scene from wherever they are, they don’t necessarily need to be on the ground.”
- Be an angel investor. Funding start-ups, looking for young people who are bubbling with innovative ideas, to let them know there are people out there who are willing to put money in their business and take shares. Organise a trust fund or some kind of capital scheme where entrepreneurs can pitch their ideas for investment.
- Be a mentor or a manager. People with management skills may volunteer to help the younger ones to help them manage their business.
- Be an advocate for better digital policy. Get together to have a voice; speak up and say to the government and all decision makers that we need to do better.
“Tell the policy makers that if they want people to invest back in their country or to return and do business in their country, a critical part of the equation is to have a good infrastructure, a good access and a good regulatory framework.”
“More importantly something that shows that the designer of the framework understands the opportunities of digital economy or digital entrepreneurship.”
The triple condition to reap the digital dividends
The main mechanisms for digital technologies to promote development, the report says are Inclusion, efficiency, innovation. The triple complements—a favorable business climate, strong human capital, and good governance.
Watch the full interview with Dr Mawaki Chango, and the 4th episode of our #NOCTechAfrica series, where I interview of inspiring African Tech entrepreneurs in the diaspora and on the continent to explore how to unlock the potential of Africa and what it takes to succeed on the continent.
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