Digitalizing Sub-Saharan Africa: Hopes and Hurdles

In the latest analytical chapter for the Regional Economic Outlook for sub-Saharan Africa,the IMF’s African department* examines how digitalization can transform economies and people’s lives. The COVID‑19 pandemic has amplified those hopes. The pandemic illustrates the value of digitalization, but is also a stark reminder of the remaining digital divide.

Harnessing digital tools to fight COVID-19

In many sub-Saharan African countries, digital tools are supporting efforts to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. In Rwanda, for example, anti-epidemic robots are monitoring patients, delivering food and medication, while free e-consultation tools are helping Nigerians to self-assess infection risk and get tested based on symptoms.

While telework arrangements have allowed businesses to continue partial operations in many countries, the switch to telework has been less pronounced in sub‑Saharan Africa.

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The region’s less reliable internet connectivity and electricity supply have been limiting factors.

An IMF survey of policy responses to the pandemic suggests that countries in the region that were able to switch to partial telework arrangements by mid-May 2020 had greater access to internet (28 percent of the population) compared to non‑telework countries (17 percent).

A narrowing digital divide

Sub-Saharan Africa’s race to digitalize faces other hurdles. Mobile download speeds in the region are, on average, more than 3 times slower than in the rest of the world. Affordability remains a lingering obstacle to adoption as the cost of accessing digital technologies remains high relative to incomes.

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But the gaps between the region and the rest of the world are narrowing fast. Internet penetration in sub-Saharan Africa has grown tenfold since the early 2000s, compared with a threefold increase in the rest of the world.

Digitalization is advancing fast in the financial sector, where some regional countries are global leaders in mobile money transactions—money transactions as a share of GDP average close to 25 percent, against just 5 percent in the rest of the world.

Reshaping the post-COVID-19 recovery

These advances mean that digitalization can play a vital role in supporting the region’s post‑pandemic recovery. According to IMF research, expanding internet access in sub-Saharan Africa by an extra 10 percent of the population could increase real per capita GDP growth by 1 to 4 percentage points.

There are also benefits for businesses and workers. Firms using email for business record annual sales that are 2.6 times higher. On average, digitally‑connected firms employ eight times more workers, and create higher skilled, full-time jobs.

This is not to discount concerns about automation and potential job losses, but smart policies can help reap the benefits of digitalization. And, where digitalization supports better policy design and better economic outcomes, it can be a win‑win.

Countries in the region have embraced digital platforms—from Côte d’Ivoire’s new ePassport agency, to Kenya’s eCitizen portal—to continue delivering government services during the current health crisis.

Governments are also taking advantage of the region’s leadership in mobile money to provide immediate support to households and businesses impacted by the pandemic, while promoting social distancing. For instance, Togo’s “NOVISSI” social protection program uses mobile money and electronic cash transfers to support vulnerable households and informal sector workers. Some central banks in the region have relaxed mobile money regulations to encourage greater use digital payments rather than risk the spread of the virus through bank notes.

Investing in a digital Africa

While the pandemic seems set to accelerate sub-Saharan Africa’s digital transformation, digitalization does not happen by itself, nor is it a cure‑all.

Emerging from the pandemic will depend on integrating digital strategies within each country’s broader development agenda. As countries move in this direction, four broad pillars can help guide pro‑digital policies:

  • Investing in infrastructure —both traditional digital‑friendly infrastructure (including more reliable electricity) and digital‑ready IT infrastructure;
  • Investing in policy frameworks by fostering a digital-friendly business and regulatory environment, and championing the use of digital policies;
  • Investing in skills by improving core education as a basis for continued learning alongside focused investments in digital skills; and
  • Investing in risk management frameworks to address cybersecurity threats.

Investing in a digital Africa today, paves the way for more resilient economies tomorrow.

* This article for IMF Country Focus was prepared by Félix Simione and Martha Tesfaye Woldemichael, both economists in the African Department and members of the team who prepared the digitalization chapter.

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Top Mobile Apps Made in Africa

Mobile apps have been taking the smartphone industry by storm. While many individuals use mobile apps in their free time to play games, check the weather or follow a sports team, Africans have learned to take full advantage of the knowledge available at their fingertips.

Mobile Apps

Most popular mobile apps in Africa that are available on either Android or iOS devices.

Not only do Africans use their smartphones to make calls, send text messages and browse the Internet, but they also use their devices to access mobile money services and locate healthcare facilities.

This list compiles the most popular mobile apps in Africa that are available on either Android or iOS devices.

1. Find-A-Med
This location-based mobile application allows its users to find the closest healthcare facility. The app also provides a place where its users can store their basic healthcare information in case of an emergency. Find-A-Med is available on both Android and Apple devices.

2. PesaCalc
PesaCalc is a free Android app that allows users to streamline access to mobile money services in Kenya. This app is compatible with all three of Kenya’s mobile money services. In addition, the app allows users to prepare the correct amount of cash to send, including fees, to both registered and unregistered users.

3. SnapnSave
SnapnSave is a shopping app that gives its users cash back on their everyday grocery purchases. The app was recently launched in Cape Town, South Africa, and its developers are hoping that it will influence their consumers to make smarter purchases.

4. Wumdrop
Wumdrop is a South African-made app that allows for the delivery or picking up of packages. The user is able to request a courier, track them on a map and receive notification of the pending delivery.

5. Slimtrader
This app was founded in 2009 and is popular in Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. Slimtrader allows its users to perform e-commerce transactions, such as buying or paying for goods and services. In other terms, the app allows its users to effectively shop by text messages. However, it is only available on Android devices.

6. M-Farm
Launched in 2012, M-Farm is primarily aimed at Kenyan farmers in order to keep them informed of crop prices and other farming-related matters. The app runs on an SMS-based service and is now available to users in five major towns in Kenya. This app is only available on Android devices.

7. Voicemap
Voicemap allows its users to explore places such as Cape Town with the help of its walking tour setting. These audio walking tours are available in voices belonging to expert correspondents, veteran broadcasters and passionate locals. This app is available on both Android and Apple devices.

8. Kids First Aid
The Kids First Aid app gives parents and teachers access to emergency first aid information when they need it. Ideally, this app will be able to give information to parents when they are travelling in a place where they do not speak the local language or when help is not readily available. This app is available only on Apple devices.

9. Suba
Suba is a location-based group photo album that creates a group photo stream. Once the stream is created, users can add pictures and send invites to others. Suba is available on both Android and Apple devices.

10. Safari Tales
Safari Tales was developed in order to eliminate the shortage of books in Kenya. The app is interactive and available in multiple languages. Safari Tales offers African stories that may not be easily found in countries that lack educational books for children. This app is available on Android devices.

Kerri Szulak

Sources: IT News Africa, Voices of Africa

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Contact-tracing apps are not a solution to the COVID-19 crisis

The unprecedented threat from the novel coronavirus has confined many Americans to their homes, distancing them from one another at great cost to local economies and personal well-being. Meanwhile the pressure grows on American institutions to do something—anything—about the pandemic.

Encouraged by the White House, much of that pressure to act has focused on Silicon Valley and the tech industry, which has responded with a fragile digital solution. Tech companies and engineering departments at major universities are pinning their hopes of returning Americans to work and play on the promise of smartphone apps. Coronavirus? There’s an app for that.

The Private Kit mobile app, which aims to help authorities with contact tracing efforts to curb the spread of a novel coronavirus, seen on a phone in this picture illustration taken April 9, 2020. REUTERS/Paresh Dave/IllustrationWe are concerned by this rising enthusiasm for automated technology as a centerpiece of infection control. Between us, we hold extensive expertise in technology, law and policy, and epidemiology. We have serious doubts that voluntary, anonymous contact tracing through smartphone apps—as Apple, Google, and faculty at a number of academic institutions all propose—can free Americans of the terrible choice between staying home or risking exposure. We worry that contact-tracing apps will serve as vehicles for abuse and disinformation, while providing a false sense of security to justify reopening local and national economies well before it is safe to do so. Our recommendations are aimed at reducing the harm of a technological intervention that seems increasingly inevitable.

We have no doubts that the developers of contact-tracing apps and related technologies are well-intentioned. But we urge the developers of these systems to step up and acknowledge the limitations of those technologies before they are widely adopted. Health agencies and policymakers should not over-rely on these apps and, regardless, should make clear rules to head off the threat to privacy, equity, and liberty by imposing appropriate safeguards.

Proposals to combat coronavirus using smartphones largely focus on facilitating the process of “contact tracing.” Contact tracing involves working backward from infected cases to identify people who may have been exposed to disease, so that they can be tested, isolated, and—when possible—treated. Traditional contact tracing is a labor-intensive process of interviews and detective work. Some countries such as Singapore, South Korea and Israel have enlisted technology, including mobile apps, to facilitate contact tracing of coronavirus cases, and this idea is now catching on in the United States. North Dakota and Utah have released voluntary contact-tracing apps that rely on tracking users’ location as they move about, and the consulting firm PwC has begun promoting a contact-tracing tool to permit employers to screen which employees can return to work. Several American technology companies and institutions of higher learning are developing the infrastructure that would permit automated contact tracing of a sort, while also avoiding certain privacy concerns.

Contact tracing can be an important component of an epidemic response especially when the prevalence of infection is low. Such efforts are most effective where testing is rapid and widely available and when infections are relatively rare—conditions that are currently unusual in the United States. Ideally, manual contact tracing by trained professionals can help identify candidates for testing and quarantine to help contain the spread of coronavirus.

The lure of automating the painstaking process of contact tracing is apparent. But to date, no one has demonstrated that it’s possible to do so reliably despite numerous concurrent attempts. Apps that notify participants of disclosure could, on the margins and in the right conditions, help direct testing resources to those at higher risk. Anything else strikes us as implausible at best, and dangerous at worst.

Lawmakers, for their part, must be proactive and rapidly impose safeguards with respect to the privacy of data, while protecting those communities who can be—and historically have been— harmed by the collection and exploitation of personal data. Protections need to be put in place to expressly prohibit economic and social discrimination on the basis of information and technology designed to address the pandemic. For example, academics in the United Kingdom have proposed model legislation to prevent compulsory or coerced use of these untested systems to prevent people from going back to work, school, or accessing public resources. The prospect of surveillance during this crisis only serves to reveal how few safeguards exist to consumer privacy, especially at the federal level.

At the end of the day, no clever technology—standing alone—is going to get us out of this unprecedented threat to health and economic stability. At best, the most visible technical solutions will do more than help on the margin. At a minimum, it is the obligation of their designers to ensure they do no harm.

Ashkan Soltani is an independent researcher and technologist specializing in privacy, security, and behavioral economics. He was previously a senior advisor to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer, the chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission, and a contributor to the Washington Post team that in 2014 won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of national-security issues.

Ryan Calo is a professor of law at the University of Washington, with courtesy appointments in computer science and information science and the co-founder of two interdisciplinary research initiatives.

Carl Bergstrom is a professor of biology at the University of Washington with extensive experience in the epidemiology of emerging infectious diseases, which he is integrating into ongoing research on spread of disinformation through social and traditional media channels during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

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5G to support more than 10% of world’s mobile connections by 2023

According to the new Cisco Annual Internet Report, 5G will support more than 10% of the world’s mobile connections by 2023. The average 5G speed will be 575 megabits per second, or 13 times faster than the average mobile connection.

With advanced performance capabilities, 5G will deliver more dynamic mobile infrastructures for AI and emerging IoT applications including autonomous cars, smart cities, connected health, immersive video and more.

For the past 50 years, each decade introduced a new mobile technology with cutting-edge innovations. Mobile bandwidth requirements have evolved from voice calls and texting to ultra-high-definition (UHD) video and a variety of augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR) applications. Consumers and business users worldwide continue to create new demands and expectations for mobile networking.

This ongoing trend is clearly highlighted by the adoption and use of mobile applicatons. Social networking, video streaming and downloads, business productivity, e-commerce and gaming will drive the continued growth of mobile applications with nearly 300 billion downloaded by 2023.

“What we are seeing from our research is a continuous rise in internet users, devices, connections, and more demand on the network than we could have imagined,” said Roland Acra, Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Cisco.

“The insights and knowledge gained by our Annual Internet Report are helping gobal businesses, governments and service providers prepare and secure networks for the ongoing growth in connections and applications. Strategic planning and partnerships will be essential for all organizations to capitalize on their technology innovations and investments.”

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