By Christabel Ligami

Africa continues to trail behind other regions when it comes to access, affordability and usage of information and communications technology (ICT), according to a new Network Readiness Index Report (NRI) 2020.

Only Mauritius, South Africa and Kenya, in that order, the report indicates are the best performing African countries while Democratic Republic of Congo, and Chad are the lowest performing economies among the 134 economies covered in the report.

The report titled: ‘Accelerating Digital Transformation in a Post-COVID Global Economy’ was launched online by Portulans Institute, in partnership with the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), November 30.

It shows that Africa where 87 per cent of the countries are either lower-middle-income or low-income economies is the regional laggard in the NRI, whereas Europe where more than three quarters (76 per cent) of the countries are high-income is the leading region.

Once the “ripple effect” of COVID starts to hit international trade and investment flows, the report says such divergences between “network-ready economies” and “laggards” may be amplified.
“Even though there is a lot of celebration around how far Africa has come, in terms of digitization, there still is a lot more that needs to be done, if we really want to deliver an inclusive Africa” said Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa).

Digital technologies have immense potential to transform economic and social interactions and are opening up new possibilities for increased transparency, accountability and citizen participation in policy-making and service delivery.

The report shows that Mauritius is the only country in the Africa region that is placed in the third quartile in the NRI 2020. Its highest rank is in the Technology pillar, as a result of solid access, content, future Technologies. South Africa does particularly well in the governance with strong performance in trust regulation, inclusion while enya, like South Africa, enjoys its best performance in the governance, which similarly is due to encouraging levels of trust regulation and inclusion.

According to the report, in 2019, about two-thirds of the global population own a mobile phone, and a little more than 55 percent of the global population is connected to the Internet. While these penetration rates are significant, especially when compared to five or 10 years ago, the rate of growth in penetration has slowed.

“Divides also exist regarding the quality of technology being accessed—such as the bandwidth of broadband connectivity,” says the report adding that there are fears that high-income economies with more skills and greater access to resources may be able to leverage better technology to create more economic value at a faster rate than low-income nations who have access to some technology, have limited skills, and access to fewer resources.

NRI data show that digital transformation is happening at all levels: internationally, nationally, and locally. Smart cities, in particular, may be seen as a harbinger of the kind of digital transformations to come when “smart nations” start burgeoning.

“In the face of longstanding and new challenges (climate change, growing inequalities, health), digital transformation can be a formidable tool to allow countries, cities, corporations, and individuals to build a better future. However, if unchecked and left to the spontaneous forces of the market, it may lead to the opposite outcome. Rebalancing technological and human aspects of digital transformation is hence a tall agenda for all of us,” notes the report.

“Trust and security are central to successful digital transformation Trust and security need to be at the core of digital transformation strategies to allow them to generate their full expected benefits, be it in electronic transactions (including e-commerce) or in broader areas such as education (certification, grading).”

The COVID crisis, the report says is accelerating digital transformation the rapid development of tele-working in locked-down economies, as well as the substitution of tele-conferencing for physical meetings and events have shown that the potential to digitize a number of activities (including education, for example) was generally far greater than anticipated. The resulting practices, for the majority, are here to stay, and will continue to affect the way we work, learn, compete, and cooperate.

Digital transformation can help the accelerated implementation of SDGs. Each and every one of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015 (SDGs) can be accelerated through the adequate use of digital technology. A truly planetary digital transformation would be one that strives to end poverty and inequality, tackle climate change and environmental degradation, and strive for peace and justice. Available data, however, show that a new acceleration of policies and efforts is needed to trigger such a transformation.

The main reason why digital transformation differs markedly from digital initiatives and digital strategies (some would say from digitization and digitalization), is that it implies a radical change (a metamorphosis) in the nature of an existing entity, rather than differences in its modus operandi alone. Most analysts and practitioners have now adopted the typology articulated by McKinsey, according to which there are four types (or levels) of digital transformation: business process, business model, domain, and cultural/organizational.