Bridging Africa’s Digital Divide

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The need to bridge Africa’s digital divide was the focus of global technology leaders at this year’s International Telecommunication Union Telecoms World conference in Durban, South Africa, writes Emma Okonji

Organised annually by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which is the United Nations specialised agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs), this year’s ITU Telecom World event, sought to bridge Africa’s digital divide, using the ITU ‘4 I’s’ initiative, namely Infrastructure, Investment, Innovation and Inclusivity.

The four days conference, which held at the International Conference Centre (ICC) in Durban, South Africa, brought together an influential audience of key policy-makers, regulators, industry experts, investors, small and medium size enterprises (SMEs), entrepreneurs and innovators, to discuss and proffer solutions on how best to bridge the Africa’s digital divide.
The conference provided a unique global platform for developed and emerging markets to focus on smart digital transformation and the global opportunities this offers for Africa, while considering critical factors like infrastructure, investment, innovation and inclusivity.

Bridging the digital divide

Global technology leaders were particular about bringing the digital divide and offering opportunities for Africans to catch up with the rest of the world in technology development. The forum stressed the need for African governments to key into ITU’s initiative for Africa, which emphasised infrastructure, investment, innovation and inclusivity.
The forum insisted that African government must build modern infrastructure, invest in evolving technologies, support innovation from technology startups and ensure all inclusive connectivity of its citizens.

ITU Secretary-General, Mr. Houlin Zhao, who spoke during the opening ceremony of the conference, said the ITU “4 I’s” initiative were all critical to bridging the digital divide and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

According to Zhao, ITU Telecom World 2018 remained a platform for everyone to forge new ICT partnerships and create new ICT business opportunities.

He called on Africans to use ITU Telecom World 2018 for smart digital development and to work together to ensure a smart and inclusive digital future for all – in South Africa, the African continent, and the rest of the world.

According to him, “ITU Telecom World 2018 is the last major ITU gathering before we meet at the Plenipotentiary in Dubai next month. It is an opportunity for African countries to make their voice count and play an important role in shaping the environment that will lead the development of digital technology into the next decade. It will further strengthen ITU’s mission to develop ICT and engage with SMEs across the globe.”

He urged all young entrepreneurs to use technology tools to develop technology solutions that would address specific challenges in Africa and the rest of the world.

“All the young entrepreneurs are the hope of a nation, an entire continent, and our world. ITU Telecom World 2018 is your opportunity to show the world what African tech SMEs can do to help create jobs, transform people’s lives, and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals right here in Africa,” Zhao said.

Driving investment with ICT
South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, in his speech, stressed the need for African governments to drive investments, using information and communication technology (ICT).
He said: “We are determined that the ICT sector be an integral part of this investment drive, with a focus on infrastructure investment, e-commerce, local manufacturing of equipment, and innovation.”

South Africa, he said, demonstrated its capabilities in the development and deployment of information and communications technology.

“We are certain that Telecom World 2018 will produce innovative solutions to societal challenges and establish a platform for greater inclusive growth, the South African president said.
The Group CEO of MTN, Rob Shuter, who commended South African government for hosting the conference for the first time in the continent, said MTN would continue to partner African governments to drive the fourth industrial revolution in Africa, which is basically about knowledge economy.

“We are excited about the engagements taking place between governments, industry experts and other representatives from around the world; on the victories and challenges of the ICT sector. MTN’s theme for this conference is “anything is possible when we are connected. This stems from our company’s core belief that everyone deserves the benefits of a modern, connected life,” Shuter said.

Shaping Africa’s digital revolution
Speaking on the need to address Africa’s digital revolution, Ramaphosa said African countries were at the dawn of a digital revolution that would reshape the way we work, they way we live and the way we relate to each other.

According to him, technological change is proceeding at a pace far greater than anything humanity has experienced before. It is through forums like this that we are able not only to anticipate technological change, but also to harness it for the advancement of humanity. It is through bodies like the International Telecommunication Union that we craft a digital agenda for inclusivity, sustainability and development.

“We have the means and the responsibility to direct the evolution of information and communications technology towards the achievement of a better life for all the peoples of the world,” Ramaphosa said.

“It is our task to ensure that the 4th Industrial Revolution improves the human condition and that no one is left behind. It is our task to ensure that this digital revolution responds to the needs of the developing world. It must assist in overcoming unemployment, not exacerbate it, and it must bridge the digital divide, not widen it. It must employ the latest in communications technology and data analytics to solve some of the world’s greatest development challenges. The decisions we make now, as individual countries and as a global collective, will determine whether the 4th Industrial Revolution is the opportunity that so many people anticipate or the threat that so many people fear, he added.

Government’s role in digital innovation
As economies become increasingly dependent on information and communication technology, it is critical that governments, especially African governments, work more closely with industry to maximise the value of digital innovations.

The South African president called on governments and industry players to develop effective collaborative relationships with the communities they are both expected to serve.

“It is such relationships that are required, for example, for the accelerated rollout of broadband in areas that are generally seen as not being economically viable,” Ramaphosa said, adding that there are currently 20 million South Africans who do not use the internet, for a range of reasons such as unaffordable data prices, lack of internet-enabled devices and lack of access.

He said the South African government has recently decided to accelerate the licensing of the radio frequency spectrum in the 2.6Ghz, 700Mhz and 800Mhz bands to hasten the growth of mobile communications.

“We have finalised consultations with the telecommunications industry and other stakeholders to ensure allocation of spectrum reduces barriers to entry, promotes competition and reduces costs to consumers. In addition, government has begun work in preparation for 5G spectrum licensing as part of efforts to build a smarter digital economy,” Ramaphosa said.

“Earlier this year, we announced plans to establish a Digital Industrial Revolution Commission to ensure we are in a position to seize the opportunities of the rapid advances in information and communication technology, “he added, while revealing that the South Africa government recently embarked on an investment drive to attract $100 billion in new investment in the country over the next five years.

New initiatives
New initiatives were launched at the ITU Telecoms World conference to bridge the gender digital divide in Africa and to equip girls and young women with digital skills that are key to achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment

ITU and UN Women, launched the initiative in collaboration with the African Union Commission. One of the initiatives known as The African Girls Can CODE Initiative (AGCCI), is a four-year progamme that aims to train and empower girls and young women aged 17 to 20 years old across Africa to become computer programmers, creators and designers – and in so doing, enable more girls and young women to take up studies and careers in the information and communication technology (ICT) sector.

The initiative plans to encourage African countries to mainstream ICT studies, including coding, into their national curricula to provide girls and young women with more opportunities to learn digital skills; establish a network of women in ICT who will act as role-models; and create an online community platform through which girls can connect and share their coding experiences.
According to ITU Zhao, “ITU is delighted to be part of the African Girls Can CODE Initiative, which builds on our ongoing efforts to bridge the gender digital divide in Africa and around the world. It is essential that girls and young women are equipped with digital skills so that they can access employment opportunities in our increasingly digital world.”

“It is important to increase the number of girls and women who are participating in today’s technology led world,” said UN Women Executive Director Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. According Mlambo-Ngcuka, “Empowering girls with digital skills will be key to solving some of the big challenges the world faces in the 21st century, attain sustainable development and make the world a better place to live in.”

ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau Director, Brahima Sanou, said: “By teaching coding and other digital skills, this initiative is not only an opportunity that could help reduce youth unemployment but it is also a means towards achieving gender equality, women’s empowerment and accelerating the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals.”