ICT In Africa: Building A Better Life for All

TECH DIGEST – In the 1990s and the early 2000s, development-focused information and communication technology (ICT) research predominantly concentrated on bridging the digital divide through overcoming connectivity and access barriers for more and more of Africa’s population.

This provided connections to the rest of the world and ultimately helped to overcome to a large extent the so-called “last mile” challenge faced in Africa.

As the penetration of ICTs increased across the African continent in the late 2000s and early 2010s, the focus started to shift to the uptake and impact of these ICTs in order to transform societies and economies since enhancing information flows alone is not sufficient to grasp development opportunities. It is vital to foster digital opportunities and social inclusion by enhancing the use of ICTs for capacity-building, empowerment, governance and social participation; to strengthen capacities for scientific research, information sharing and cultural creations, performances and exchanges of knowledge, and to enhance learning opportunities through access to diversified contents and delivery systems to support the transformation to knowledge societies. Barriers to be overcome are no longer only technological but also educational, cultural and linguistic in nature. Neglecting to invest sufficiently in human capacity may result in the “last mile” challenge becoming the “lost mile.”

In the first part of the two-part special issue on ICT in Africa, the focus was on whether and, if so, how ICT can enable better lives for the people in Africa. Articles examined the role of ICT infrastructure and institutional quality to enable an increase in intra-African trade, the use of mobile telephony in the agricultural sectors to enable information sharing, the use of ICTs to enable information access in remote rural areas and ways to increase successful implementations of ICT projects, all in order to ultimately enable increased sustainability and improved livelihoods for people in Africa, particularly for the rural periphery.

In the second part, the focus is on human capacity-building, ICT skills development, and the diffusion and adoption of various ICTs and the impact thereof across the African continent in order to build better lives for the people of Africa.

Approximately 250 million people are expected to join the African workforce between 2010 and 2050 (The Economist, 2014). According to Berman (2013), Africa will have the world’s largest workforce even sooner; in this decade the workforce will increase by 163 million and by 2035 the workforce will be larger than that of China. Within the next 35 years, Africans will account for a quarter of the world’s workers.

In Africa, both sub-Saharan and North Africa, approximately 40% of the population is under the age of 15, and nearly 70% is under the age of 30.2 With many countries in Africa in a demographic transition, the resulting youth bulge can result in a demographic dividend if the majority of young, working age adults can find productive employment.

For the foreseeable future, the ICT and IT-enabled services industry, which encompasses amongst others call centers, back office operations and business process outsourcing, can potentially create numerous new jobs and catalyze economic and social transformation. There is also a rising demand for profession-based services and knowledge process outsourcing that encompasses information-related business activities.

Examples of KPO include market research, legal and medical processing services, investment and equity research, and editing for international publishing houses, among others. Selected African countries have already started capitalizing on these opportunities. For example, South Africa expanded into IT-enabled financial services and Egypt into multilingual call centers.

African countries should further develop not only their infrastructure but also the human potential within their borders to benefit from this market opportunity since these opportunities, particularly the higher value added services that also command higher revenues, require advanced technical and analytical skills. But, in many countries these skills are inadequate. For example, Mutula and Van Brakel found that Botswana had an acute shortage of high-skilled ICT personnel to take advantage of the emerging digital economy in the country.

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