December 7, 2021
President, U.S.-Africa Business Center, Sr. Vice President, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Vice President, U.S.-Africa Business Center, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Executive Director, U.S.-South Africa Business Council, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Executive Director, Coalition for the Rule of Law in Global Markets, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Former Executive Vice President and Head of International Affairs, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
The last two years have emphasized the importance of “going digital” and the expansion of digital economies around the world. This is especially true in continents like Africa, where there are large gaps in access to the internet and other digital resources. Improving digital equality through collaboration and strategic partnerships in Africa can open the door to a wealth of opportunities, thereby strengthening its place in the global economy.
During the U.S.-Africa Business Center’s 2021 Africa Digital Economy Summit, business and government leaders from the United States and Africa discussed the current and emerging issues driving technological change and digital transformation in Africa.
Digital Transformation Has Facilitated Economic Activities Across Africa
In his keynote address, H.E. Hakainde Hichilema, President of Zambia, discussed how the Zambian government considers digital transformation critical for enhancing economic efficiency and productivity.
“In Zambia, digital transformation is already facilitating economic activities, mainly through enhanced financial services, e-commerce, streamlined and electronically accessible government services, and information dissemination for agricultural productivity, to mention just a few,” said President Hichilema. “Increasingly, it is creating employment opportunities for the youth in various sectors, such as transport, logistics, trade, financial services, [and] the creative industry.”
To continue to bolster these activities, President Hichilema noted that the Zambian government has created a dedicated ministry for technology and science to champion the digital transformation agenda and support private-sector innovations.
Google Is Addressing Digital Access in Africa
Of the 1 billion-plus people in Africa, only 300 million of them are currently using the internet as of 2021. That means roughly 800 million Africans have never experienced the Internet. During his address, Nitin Gajria, managing director for Sub-Saharan Africa at Google, said that the company recently made an investment of $1 billion to support the continent’s digital transformation in four key areas.
“First, enabling affordable access and building products for every kind of African user,” said Gajria. “Second, helping businesses with their digital transformation. Third, investing in entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship to spur next-generation technology. And fourth, to support nonprofits that are working to improve lives in Africa.”
“Research tells us that with every 10% increase in internet penetration, GDP increases by 1.4%,” Gajria added. “In the next five years, we expect 300 million Africans to come online for the very first time.”
Many Opportunities and Challenges to Embracing Fintech in Africa
Over the past decade, Africa’s financial technology, or fintech, space has experienced phenomenal growth. This growth has led to the advancement of e-commerce and other innovative approaches within the continent and is a bright spot for the future of the digital economy.
“Without the innovation of fintechs, banks cannot digitize quickly enough,” said Lucy Nshuti Mbabazi, head of Africa advocacy and partnerships at the Better Than Cash Alliance. “The biggest driver is opportunity. The great thing about fintechs [is] they move quickly — they're agile. But they're also burdened by having to work with so many players because interoperability is still very much a luxury.”
While fintech innovation has helped Africa become the largest banking market in the world in terms of profitability, there are still some challenges to fully utilizing its potential.
“One of the major potential roadblocks would be the unpredictable nature of regulations,” said Princess M. Kele-Nzeh, the regional expansions lead for Southern Africa and North America at Flutterwave. “Our regulatory requirements are rapidly changing, and fintechs, as well as financial institutions, will constantly need to standardize our … processes so that we remain in compliance with regulations.”
“Another potential roadblock that I see is the increase in trusting cash,” Kele-Nzeh continued. “We still have a lot of economies that are still predominantly cash … so the vast majority of customers prefer to use physical cash as opposed to tech-driven alternatives, which might actually be easier to use.”
Trust Needs to Be Built to Scale the Digital Economy
Kele-Nzeh noted that trust is essential to building up Africa's digital economy. Companies need to work with their customers in order to scale the digital ecosystem and build interoperability with them. Otherwise, the economy won't grow as rapidly and those who would benefit from it won't be able to access it.
“We need to work together ... with regulators to stipulate policies that would support complex payments and supply chains, meaning that our African institutions today would have more options to connect your local e-payment systems with services used by their global customers,” Kele-Nzeh said.