While in Africa mobile and smart phones are spreading and ingenious local adaptations are being developed, people in the industrialised nations are talking about the 4th industrial revolution, the large scale linking of digital and other systems. Where has digitisation reached in Africa? To what extent can it contribute to the economic and social development of the continent?
Nowhere has digital communication spread as fast as in Africa. Even the elderly and street children use mobile gadgets and in countries ravaged by wars digital communication systems have been successfully set up. The African countries with the highest rate of mobile phones, in bracket the percentage of smart phones, were as follows in 2015; South Africa 90% (34%); Nigeria 89% (27%); Senegal 83% (27%); Ghana 83% (14%); Kenya 82% (15%); Tanzania 73% (8%); Uganda 66% (5%).
By 2020 the number of smart phones in Africa is expected to reach 700 million. The young generation, especially, is fascinated by the digital world. Computers and smart phones have become even more attractive through improved access to the internet.
Between 2009 and 2014 several undersea fibre optic cables placed along the eastern and western coasts have linked Africa to Asia, Europe and North-America. Many internet providers have improved their capacities, often with the assistance of overseas donor organisations.
What makes the growth of digital communication in Africa so remarkable is the development of programmes and applications by local programmers and entrepreneurs which correspond to the daily needs of users and promise to become an important tool of development. Experts see an enormous growth potential for digitisation in Africa. With the exception of South Africa and some north-African states, most countries have a very low level of industrialisation. The well-planned development of the digital infrastructure could greatly boost economic development and contribute to social change. Here are some examples:
Education: E-learning programmes help both teachers and students who often have no access to school books, especially in rural areas.
Banking: With the “M-pesa”, mobile money, system people are able via their mobile phones to open accounts, pay bills and transfer money quickly and cheaply. M-pesa has been a revolution for millions of people in Eastern Africa who had no access to bank services. In the meantime, Vodaphone is offering the same services in South Africa, DR Congo, Mozambique and even in India, Romania and Albania.
Agriculture: Via mobile phone farmers receive information about more productive methods of growing crops, weather forecasts and current market price which help them to improve their standard of living.
Health services: Using “tele-medicine” rural dispensaries can consult specialists about difficult cases and receive advice about diagnoses and therapies. Groups like young people, pregnant women and young mothers can receive medical advice about health problems related to their particular situation.
Online trade: E-trading is picking up. In some countries, like Nigeria, the volume triples every year.
Administration: South Africa is experimenting with an E-Tender-System for public procurement which aims to diminish wide-spread corruption.
Politics: For their election campaigns, candidates rely heavily mobile phones by sending SMS to their electorate. Election observers are able to send results from the local polling station to the party headquarters thus making cheating more difficult. Because the social media have such great influence on public opinion authoritarian regimes tend to shut down internet access at critical moments.
The spread and ingenious use of digital communications in many countries are truly impressive. Whether the digital revolution can give a substantial boost to development depends on several factors, such as the political stability of the country, the building up of a reliable electricity grid and of efficient digital infrastructure and internet access to ordinary citizens.
The great challenge is to shape the “4th Industrial Revolution” in such a way that it serves the common good and diminishes social inequality.
(José Luis Gutiérrez Aranda)