A recent panel discussion at AfricaCom opened with a tough question: “Given the impact that COVID-19 and lockdown regulations have had on global economies, will Africa feel the after-effects of the pandemic for the next 10 years?”
According to Tunde Fafunwa, lead advisor at the Digital Centre for Excellence at United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the jury is still out on that one. He did, though, acknowledge that the more immediate and mid-term effects of the pandemic have had a significant impact on the continent as a whole. What is important, noted Razvan Ungureanu, chief technical officer at Airtel Africa, is that as we seek to answer this question, we view each nation across the continent as an individual entity with different needs and regulations that either help or hinder the country’s ability to successfully reboot its economy.
So, what technologies do tech leaders expect to drive opportunity for the 50-plus countries that make up the continent in the next decade?
For Fafunwa, it’s about different technologies coming together, and the interaction between these innovations that will make a difference. “In linking blockchain technology to micropayments we are set to fundamentally change how much control people have over their money and their data, for example.”
Stumbling blocks include poor infrastructure
From a telecoms perspective, Ungureanu asserted that many of the trends and challenges of the last 10 years will continue into the next 10. This doesn’t mean that Africa isn’t moving forward but it does mean that the major stumbling blocks will be the same — spotty infrastructure, an unstable regulatory environment and poor provision of connectivity support.
Speaking to CIO Africa after AfricaCom, Jonathan Tullett, research manager for IT services at IDC sub-Saharan Africa, said that we need to understand how social distancing measures and a massive uptick in remote work will fundamentally change what work looks like, indefinitely. He argued that the world of work will never look the same. With this in mind, Tullet mentioned tech trends like remote work and distance learning as key employment drivers across the continent in years to come.
COVID-19 has highlighted the fact that many of the excuses companies used to avoid remote work can actually be overcome. “And having been overcome, these excuses can’t be used again. This is likely to change the shape of the workforce in lasting ways,” Tullet said. For example, most African businesses would invariably hold important meetings face-to-face. But in the space of six months, everyone has become accustomed to and comfortable with using consumer-grade videoconferencing tools.
Telcos will need to change business models
Meanwhile, the pandemic may just have added another nail in the coffin for voice telecoms revenues, Tullet said. Data revenues shot up because of remote working, but voice traffic dropped because calls were all happening on online platforms, he explained. As a result, the imperatives for telcos to reinvent their businesses in the next 10 years has become that much more urgent.
Also chatting to CIO Africa after the event, Mark Walker, an associate vice president for sub-Saharan Africa at IDC Middle East, Africa and Turkey, highlighted that in the next five or so years 5G will become mainstream, and we will even start seeing the beginnings of 6G. As this happens, he forecasts a greater uptake of data-based services like IoT and AI. “As these innovations become more available, reliable and affordable, more and more businesses will look to leverage these technologies to their benefit,” Walker said.
Blockchain will also play a part in diversifying and expanding African economies, according to Jimmy Nguyen, founding president of Bitcoin Association, a Switzerland-based global industry organisation. Blockchain technology can create more honesty and transparency across government activity, he said. “We see a future where Africa use blockchain technology to catch up with the rest of the world,” Nguyen said. “Especially because it provides so many amazing opportunities for entrepreneurs and start-ups to create businesses and solutions that empower people.”
The digital divide must be bridged
Tech trends such as remote learning can potentially address the “digital divide” — a lack of access to technology and skills training among particularly rural populations — that exists across the continent, Fafunwa noted. While emerging technologies are increasing being deployed throughout the region, the next 10 years will be crucial to address access and affordability issues that prevent many African consumers from making the most of these innovations. “And beyond access and affordability, in the next 10 years, Africa will also need to focus on digital skills. Ensuring that these resources are available to those who really need it,” Fafunwa said.
Africa has many basics that need to be fixed, Ungureanu cautioned, highlighting the need for reliable power and connectivity across every corner of the continent. Initiatives like smart cities and remote learning will only become viable once infrastructure, cost and availability hurdles are taken care of, added IDC’s Walker.
“The operators that can deliver affordability with network stability will be the ones that survive over the next 10 years,” Ungureanu said. Increasing automation, supported by the rollout of AI to maintain networks more efficiently, will help address the lack of skills across the region, he said.
While a lack of legacy IT infrastructure may help Africa embrace emerging technology, innovative applications alone will not be enough to fuel economic growth.
“You’ll often hear people say: ‘Africa can use tech to leapfrog XYZ’. Usually, that’s wishful thinking,” Tullet said. Technology exists within a societal and culltural construct. “Culture has to evolve, and if the tech jumps ahead of culture, it’ll end up being wasted investment. The focus needs to be on evolving that digital culture as fast as possible, not on throwing tech at a problem and hoping magic will happen.”