The Covid-19 pandemic offers Africa the chance to leapfrog development through digitisation, and potentially position itself as a global digital powerhouse.
And while the private sector has an important role to play in this development, governments have a critical role to play in enabling digitisation, through infrastructure development, but also in digitizing their own systems and processes using regulatory and legal tools.
Developments such as the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) reinforce the urgent need for governments to digitise to enable not just trade, but positive economic growth across the continent.
In its report Reopening and Reimagining Africa, McKinsey notes that governments will play a key role in fostering an enabling environment for digitisation, including ensuring that the regulatory and legislative environments support digitisation.
Governments can step up the provision of digital services and information, and use digital tools to collect, manage and use data to inform decision-making.
Governments have moved decisively and speedily to respond to the Covid-19 crisis, putting aside ‘red tape’ to break down silos across agencies and encourage data sharing to co-ordinate a central response to the pandemic, and this model could feature more prominently in the public sector going forward.
Digital technologies offer a chance to accelerate the pace of economic and social advancement, unlocking new pathways for rapid economic growth, innovation, job creation and access to services.
However, too many people in Africa lack access to the Internet, and too few citizens have digital IDs or access to financial services, which in turn denies them access to critical services. The World Bank’s Digital Economy for Africa Initiative notes that few governments are investing strategically and systematically in developing digital infrastructure, services, skills and entrepreneurship.
To unlock digital transformation, the public sector must be brought into the digital age, accelerating the rollout of digital IDs, signatures and registries, as well as implementing digital-friendly policies.
Here, private-public partnerships could play a significant role in helping to develop the necessary platforms to enable citizens to access digital IDs and services offered by government. For example, in Morocco our partnership with Algo Consulting has developed Wraqi, an online administration solution using machine learning, IoT and blockchain to improve citizen-government relations.
Powered by the Microsoft cloud, Wraqi allows users to create an account with a signature repository, which government entities can use to identify, authenticate and authorise citizens.
In South Africa, Microsoft 4Afrika is also working with the Gauteng Provincial Government to establish a Centre of Excellence to drive digital innovation and accelerate skills development and capacity building, both for provincial government employees, and also to train more than 3,000 township-based software developers.
Developments like these help to improve access for citizens and could also be an important step in enabling SMEs to take advantage of the potential benefits of AfCFTA, as digital identification can unlock access to financial services, among others.
The digital skilling conversation is a well-trodden narrative, but one that is salient to this discussion – government employees must be upskilled with the right digital skills to enable digitisation within governments and of government services.
Beyond that, governments must seek to upskill citizens to enable them to participate in the digital economy, as this will enable sustainable and inclusive economic development.