By Emma Okonji
The Regional Director, Microsoft 4Afrika, Amrote Abdella, has stressed the need for African governments to invest in digital infrastructure, insisting that such investment can make the difference to Africa’s economic recovery.
According to her, Africa faces many challenges on its path to becoming a global economic competitor, but explained that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Africa’s development could either be a massive barrier to advancement or the spark that would light the fire of innovation and investment across the continent.
“There’s no denying that for most of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed digital adoption forward in vast leaps in a very short space of time. What the pandemic has also made apparent is the disparities of infrastructure across Africa, as well as gaps in adoption and policy. It’s now a necessity, rather than a luxury to fast-track the adoption of technology. By increasing productivity and facilitating innovation, technology is a key sector for the economic development of any country, and those who have embarked on their digital transformation journeys are better equipped to handle the obstacles that arise,” Abdella said.
She cited a recent report by McKinsey and Company on Africa in the wake of COVID-19, which suggested that to expedite Africa’s economic recovery beyond the pandemic, the continent would need to accelerate its digital transformation. The report urges governments and social sector institutions to expand and broaden digital offerings, foster an enabling environment for rapid digitisation and speed up infrastructure investments, among other things.
Addressing the importance of access to digital infrastructure, Abdella said many countries were below the 20 per cent critical mass necessary to achieve improved efficiencies and enhanced information flows for economic growth and innovation. “Consumer demand for wireless connectivity is surging and spectrum is a finite source. It is critical to intensively share underused spectrum bands. As the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced social distancing and lockdown orders across the continent, the need for digital connectivity is more essential than ever, Abdella said, adding that as the pandemic spreads beyond major cities into peri-urban and rural areas, unconnected or under-connected populations risk becoming more vulnerable and isolated as they lack the digital means to access essential services.
“Wifi hotspots can provide effective connectivity solutions to COVID-19 testing stations and field hospitals, and can support remote working and learning,” Abdella added.
According to her, Microsoft has been championing the use of TV White Spaces (TWVS), which uses unused portions of spectrum for television broadcasting to bring broadband and internet-connected solutions to remote and underserved communities at an affordable cost, since the launch of 4Afrika Mawingu’s pilot project in 2013. The sustainable nature of this type of spectrum use makes it very cost efficient to implement, which is extremely beneficial for rural, underserved and developing areas. With TVWS, people are now able to access the internet for less than five per cent of the average household income.
“As much as we talk about the need for intensive ICT investment into infrastructure and the technology that will support Africa’s engagement in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), this will not happen without the human infrastructure to support the technology. For Africa to fully realise the opportunities brought about by digital transformation and 4IR, it is vital we have strong ICT skills.
“Developing skills to fill these new job roles remains high on our agenda. Regardless of age – whether students in schools, youth in and out of college, or today’s IT professionals – our mission is to empower every individual to achieve more by skilling, upskilling and reskilling them to lead a better quality of life.
“If African governments, together with private partners and organisations, can invest in these areas through supporting startup innovation, through contributing to skills development and in many other verticals, this will drive meaningful gains towards unlocking Africa’s vibrant potential,” Abdella said.