Major building blocks to catalyse the entry of Central African countries into the fourth industrial revolution, induced by digital transformations, have been laid at an intergovernmental conference extended to the private sector and academia, taking place in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea.
On the second day of this annual subregional meeting convened by both the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and the Government of Equatorial Guinea, experts weaved outlines to a framework that could blitz a transition to a subregional digital economy pronged on: public-private partnerships (PPP’s), e-commerce and technological innovations.
Public private partnerships
According to a first group of the experts tasked with developing the right approach to PPPs geared at digital transformations and economic diversification, six major sectors were identified for the main stakeholders seen as State actors, multinational entities, huge private ventures, clients and cooperatives in the subregion. The sectors are: 1) the forest/wood industry, 2) agriculture and agribusiness, 3) telecommunications and telecoms transactions, 4) the extractive industries, 5) trade and services and 6) infrastructure and energy.
The strategists concurred with the CEO of Smart Africa – Mr Lacina Koné, who on addressing the conference earlier via a video message, asserting that “ the role of the State is to orientate all other actors, provide the fundamentals and milestones of the digital economy and encourage the private sector to invest” in it.
He had given a strong argument that “the digital economy is not just one of the sectors but the sector which would bring about the true socioeconomic development of Africa.”
Logically, therefore, participants at the meeting constructed the how-to’s segment of the model which included smart use of government procurement to foster national entrepreneurship development, strengthening governance and transparency, accelerating technology transfer through performance requirements, setting up a special digital economy fund, promoting crowd-funding and making foreign direct investment and local content vehicles to stimulate the insertion of local companies into the value chain.
A second group of strategists zeroed-in on e-commerce and economic diversification in Central Africa. They noted that most e-commerce laws in the sub-region are obsolete and need to be updated in view of the advent of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). They also called for the restructuring and modernisation of post-offices’ infrastructure to enable e-commerce development. The development of a “Made in Central Africa” label was recognised as an important enabler. Lack of adequate physical addresses and proper urban zoning in some countries of the region should not be a deterrent, they recommended.
Strengthening digital literacy and customising technologies to local context and culture was seen as an important measure to break the digital divide and deepen e-commerce penetration in all social strata.
This working group suggested a three pronged approach to boost technology innovation in Central Africa, namely (i) identification of opportunities; (ii) understanding of the key binding constraints, and (iii) outlining of a set of actions with clear roles for all relevant parties.
In this regard, opportunities were spotted in the agriculture, energy, water resources, transport and security sectors. Inadequate infrastructure, gaps in available skills, linguistic barriers arising from the fact that English is the predominant global tech language, resistance to change in established business entities, a weak overall digital culture across the population and cyber insecurity were identified as the major constraints and challenges to technology diffusion in the Central Africa.
A set of actions were recommended anchored on the need to foster salutary collaboration between the State, the private sector, the start-up community and citizens. The State was seen as a key player and facilitator with the responsibility to prioritize innovation and increase investments in research and development (R&D) as well undertake regular reviews of education curricula to align them with changes in market demand and the pace of global innovation. The establishment of innovation endowment funds and the holding of regular competitions would boost innovation to address local challenges and to respond to identified opportunities, thus increasing the share of locally produced knowledge and products.