Op-Ed: Building digital infrastructure for Africa, by Africa

Assane Gueye

Sep 13, 2023

Africa is poised for a substantial amount of economic growth over the next decade, largely driven by a surge in the size of its workforce and the promise of inclusive digital growth. If implemented with foresight, digital solutions can be life changing for low-and-middle-income communities and displaced people—helping them to build wealth through access to online financial services and live longer by receiving better medical care. However, without public-private partnerships and intentional collaboration between industry, government, and community members, those same solutions will have the opposite effect—widening the digital divide, hindering economic growth, and putting people’s sensitive information at risk. A neutral party with technical expertise is needed to serve as a convener for these groups, provide unbiased advice, disseminate knowledge as digital public goods (DPGs), and facilitate the development of a digital public infrastructure (DPI). The best-suited party? Higher education.
Universities on the continent are well positioned to help solve several key challenges on the path to a digital future. Through collaboration, they can:
  • Develop Africa’s technical talent: Finding qualified manpower with the necessary skills in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector is a challenge in Africa. Over 50 percent of youth in Sub-Saharan Africa lack access to formal education, and only 2 percent of the labor force has IT skills. The limited talent pool commands higher salaries, reducing labor price competitiveness.
  • Build African digital solutions: Some African countries have tried to use imported digital solutions. However, without adequate customization to the local socio-cultural contexts, they end up being inaccessible or unusable. In addition, most African governments outsource the majority of their technology infrastructure and operations. This puts them at the mercy of foreign entities that have full control of their critical infrastructures. Every nation should have the capacity to develop and maintain its own digital needs. These governments need universal guidance and safeguards to enable safe technology.
  • Connect funding efforts: There is significant philanthropic funding surrounding the human aspects of DPI, and a lot of venture capital funds fintech to build better technology. However, these efforts tend to be disconnected from each other. For instance, CGAP Funder Survey data shows that for the first time in 2019, Sub-Saharan Africa received more financial inclusion funding than any other region, with $7.6 billion in active commitments. On the other hand, after a somewhat difficult 2020, venture capital flowing into African startups raised in the first half of 2021 totaled more than $1 billion. Unfortunately, these remarkable numbers did not prevent a slowdown of financial inclusion in Africa that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Universities can tie together philanthropic and venture capitalist efforts in a trustworthy manner.
  • Facilitate interoperability and reusability in digital platforms: Despite the promise and significance of DPGs and DPI, there is little global coordination or consensus about how to design the technical building blocks of these systems and how they should interact with each other. The current siloed development gives no guarantee that technologies will integrate or that they will satisfy basic quality standards. Collaboration will allow a layering of services, the leveraging of other technologies, and eventual data sharing. But, to enable such collaboration, DPGs and DPIs must be interoperable, both with other DPGs and DPIs, and with different deployments of the same DPG and DPI.
  • Ensure long-term sustainability of digital solutions: It takes significant human capital and investments to create, deploy, and operate DPGs. Without a clear and efficient sustainability model, the DPGs and DPIs will remain hypothetical. For DPGs and DPIs to have a transformative impact, we need pathways that outline how they will be created, integrated into existing workflows, and sustained. Moreover, to understand the end-to-end properties of DPGs and DPIs, we need evaluation frameworks and infrastructure to assess them not only at creation time, but also during the deployment and operation stages.
The timing for this conversation continues to become more urgent as sector leaders come together for this week’s 2023 Sustainable Development Goals Summit. The United Nations High Impact Initiative focused on DPI will scale inclusive and open digital ecosystems for the development goals. In order for this initiative to deliver the momentum needed to reach the 2030 deadline, collaboration is key.

About the author:

Assane Gueye is an associate teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon University Africa, located in Kigali, Rwanda. Gueye acts as co-director of the Upanzi Open Digital Technologies Network, a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded financial inclusion initiative. He also serves as co-director of CyLab-Africa, an initiative by Carnegie Mellon’s Security and Privacy Institute focused on improving the cybersecurity of digital systems in Africa and other emerging economies.