13 February 2020

A tech revolution is turbocharging Africa’s economy

By Peter Burdin

Across Africa, a quiet revolution is taking place. It is lifting people out of poverty, seeing the private sector grow and a burgeoning middle class emerge.

The revolution is a digital one in which advanced technology is fundamentally changing the socio-economic fabric of the continent.

It is setting the course for the African economy for decades to come and has the potential to turn large parts of the continent into the economic powerhouse many of us have long thought possible.

This tech revolution is ever-present in the more than six hundred incubators now operating across Africa. It’s encouraging to see that impact now spreading outside of those incubators and being felt widely in everyday life.

Numerous companies and governments have sat up and taken notice of Africa’s burgeoning digital economy, becoming key players in its advancement. Intel, for example, have launched the ‘She Will Connect’ scheme aimed at advancing the digital skills of women, in a bid to boost their employability and become active participants in the digital economy. Microsoft has its 4Afrika project, which invests in tech start-ups and entrepreneurs across the continent.

Facebook has also invested in Nigeria, with founder Mark Zuckerberg visiting the country back in 2016, stopping off at leading tech company Andela and the Co-Creation Hub (CcHUB) in Lagos, followed by a trip to the Aso Villa Demo Day in Abuja. The latter was organised by the Nigerian government and demonstrated how it isn’t just private companies stepping up their commitment to a digital future.

Foreign governments are also increasingly looking to Africa for growth opportunities. In the UK, the Go Global Africa Initiative aims to connect African and British tech firms. Elsewhere, the UAE has recently launched a $500m ‘Consortium for Africa’ programme designed to close the digital skills gap that still holds the continent back from unleashing its full potential.

What these programmes reflect is where major private and public sector players see the future of Africa’s economy. These programmes aren’t being rolled out simply as charitable, development projects. The UK and UAE, for example, are smartly positioning themselves as the first port of call for growing African tech companies by becoming key partners in their development.

This international interest in Africa should come as no surprise. The number of tech hubs across Africa has grown by nearly 50% over the past year alone. A year ago there were an estimated 442 active hubs in Africa, now there are some 618 hubs all offering support and facilities for tech entrepreneurs.

People always tell us that tech is a young person’s world. With its rapidly growing youth population – the average age of an African is now said to be just 19 –  the continent is well-placed to become the world’s next leading tech innovator.

The potential for tech to revolutionise Africa’s economy and society is almost limitless. The continent has massive challenges to conquer in terms of infrastructure, poverty, urbanisation, climate change and all the other privations from health care to education, where some 50% of schools still don’t provide computer skills as part of the basic curriculum.

That’s why the African Union has launched its Science, Technology and innovation Strategy for Africa. The strategy places tech at the core of the continent’s growth path and emphasises the impact that STEM sciences can have across all areas of need. The AU envisages an Africa whose future is to be led by innovation to transform into a knowledge-based economy.

According to an IFC report, closing this skills gap could add $130bn to the Sub-Saharan economy alone, while the African Development Bank estimates that new opportunities from tech start-ups and e-commerce could add $600bn to the continent’s GDP in the coming years.

These numbers show the huge opportunity tech development presents and how Africa’s digital skills are at the heart of an economic revolution that will fundamentally transform the look, feel and prosperity of the continent.

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Peter Burdin is the BBC’s former Africa Bureau Chief