Creating and harnessing tools for improved livelihoods

Landry Blue

Senior Research Fellow, Africa Growth Initiative, Global Economy and Development, Brookings Institution
Professor and Head of the Thunderbird School of Global Management

Using Technology and Innovation for a Better Future in Africa: Policy Priorities to Build the “Africa We Want”

The COVID-19 crisis has changed the way the world works, revealing the many limitations of existing systems and showing the need to rethink the role of information technology as a tool for economic growth. Indeed, the pandemic has accelerated the speed and effectiveness of technological innovation, adoption, policy and regulation. Although African countries have benefited from accelerating technological uptake in sectors such as health or economic transformation, the region continues to struggle with gaps in critical areas, including human resources and infrastructure.

It is important to note that the unique global political momentum that led to the unblocking of barriers to technology and innovation during the pandemic provides further evidence that governments can play a key role in policy not only in delivering technological innovation but also in supporting its diverse dissemination and use. In fact, during the pandemic, African governments sought to adopt policies specifically to stimulate technological innovation and dissemination (Figure 5.1).

To make the most of technology and innovation, African governments need to harness the momentum of innovation that is already happening on the continent, and remove remaining barriers to growth and development. I deliver seven priorities for politicians seeking to incorporate and leverage the future of technology for a prosperous continent.

Invest directly in information and communication technology and infrastructure development. The expansion of the Internet will be the key to long-term innovation and the adoption of more advanced technologies, from the Internet of Things to artificial intelligence and beyond. Although the ICT and mobile sectors have grown in recent years, millions in Africa still lack connectivity. Gaps in Internet access do not allow citizens to access the full range of Internet services; slow economic growth; limit Africa’s capacity to trade and engage with the world; and lead to inaccurate, biased data collection. If African countries want to promote technologies such as electricity and broadband, they must first have better access to physical and digital infrastructure.

Moreover, politicians should not lose sight of traditional infrastructure, as African countries need to attract more venture capital and investment. Completion of major energy and transportation projects, such as the Great Dam of the Ethiopian Renaissance, the North-South Railway and Road Corridor in South Africa and the Jasper Solar Farm in South Africa, will be a key step in signaling the modernization of Africa for companies and companies. globe.

“The unique global political impetus that led to the unblocking of barriers to technology and innovation during the pandemic provides further evidence that governments can play a key role in policy not only in delivering technological innovation but also in supporting its diverse dissemination and use.” .

Collectively, through partnerships with many stakeholders, African countries must swiftly use inclusive and sustainable digitalisation to help build a fairer society. African countries can do this by striving to improve their infrastructure and make faster progress by reaching out to regional and international partners rather than working alone. African countries can study in Morocco, whose credible infrastructure development has been achieved in part through the involvement of many public and private sector partners in regional initiatives: for example, the country’s high-speed rail project was built by French engineering company Alstom and co-financed. from France, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.

Modernize and expand access to education, training and skills. Productive, inclusive growth in the context of automation requires technology to complement rather than replace workers. However, to do this, these workers and entrepreneurs need to have different, relevant skills for a rapidly changing global economy. Africa’s workforce literacy needs to be increased in a range of soft and hard skills to be flexible and dynamic: public and private institutions need to work with universities to develop effective continuing and management education programs. Digital literacy skills can be improved by developing future-oriented curricula that create a culture that stimulates lifelong learning. African states should also establish or accelerate the development of engineering and business schools, as well as technical vocational colleges to support industrial growth and create learning models based on the changing needs of the private sector. In addition, African countries need to more systematically integrate new technologies into education to improve learning outcomes through adaptive and collaborative learning platforms, distance learning, increasing the availability of learning materials and disseminating cutting-edge teaching aids.

Increase the capacity of research institutions to participate in research and protection of intellectual property. Investments in research and development (R&D), including in the public and private sectors and universities, have a positive impact on economic growth by encouraging the development of new knowledge, techniques and technologies that increase productivity. Today, South America and Africa combined account for less than 5 percent of total global research and development spending, despite accounting for more than 20 percent of the world’s population. Indeed, Africa itself falls short of the world average of 1.7 per cent in research and development, and many African countries invest only 0.42 per cent of their total GDP. To improve R&D participation, governments can provide incentives for research organizations (for example, to allow companies to make commercial use of technological developments resulting from government-funded research); create a pool of researchers and innovators by providing scholarships and investing in human capital and education; enhancing the capacity of research institutions to conduct quality research through funding; and encouraging diaspora scientists, engineers and innovators to return. Governments must protect intellectual property rights (IP) to stimulate the creation of new innovations and technologies. Such interference may take the form of patents, copyrights, design rights, trademarks and similar policies to protect trade secrets.

Direct investment in high-performance and labor-intensive industries. In the context of the accelerated development of technology and innovation, countries must take active measures to identify and exploit the comparative advantages in new industrial niches represented by the latest technologies. Growth priorities for labor-intensive industries are particularly important for employment among Africa’s growing youth. Another key step will be to stimulate competition between firms by lowering barriers to entry. For example, the Marac government’s work to network innovators in key industries, support research in cutting-edge technology, coordinate public and private sector innovation efforts, and provide information to foreign investors can serve as a model for African countries exploring ways to encourage productive investment. new technologies. In line with successful examples in countries such as Mauritius and Rwanda, countries can also set up science parks and technology centers to encourage innovation. Another successful example is the creation of the Smart Africa Alliance, a collaboration between Smart Africa, the Digital Impact Alliance and the Government of Kenya to create a framework used to develop and achieve the digital economy.

Expand and support intra-regional trade and investment as they accelerate industrial development and create a larger market for innovation. Reducing trade barriers in Africa can stimulate industrial growth and innovation as it allows African countries to compete globally with developed economies that have historically dominated technological revolutions. The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is a key step in building a reliable, competitive market for goods across Africa. Further cooperation between African States, using existing multilateral agreements such as the African Union and the African Development Bank, is a vital way for African States to pool their resources effectively and reduce regional trade and infrastructure deficits. The North African Corridor Agreement, for example, could serve as a model for larger-scale agreements extending to North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, including ICT integration and the development of other infrastructure. Accelerators of these projects will be technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. In addition, regional organizations need to create a framework to help address youth unemployment across the continent to help other enlargement areas.

“Productive, inclusive growth in the context of automation requires technology to complement, not replace, employees.”

Establish institutions to combat technological failures, encourage innovation and ensure security. Policies to support innovation and protect citizens are as good as the institutions that provide them. Therefore, leaders need to create mobile institutions empowered to work in different ministries. These institutions can also help ensure consumer protection from practices such as inflated prices, low quality and breaches of privacy, and can promote a fair and competitive ICT market. These institutions can also serve as a catalyst for industrial policy, which may include tariffs, subsidies, business incentives, infrastructure investment and other measures to increase the competitiveness of domestic firms and encourage innovation and structural transformation. Importantly, with digital innovation come risks that threaten privacy and security around the world, so domestic policy and international cooperation can play a crucial role in creating a more inclusive future. Thus, the creation of the Data Privacy Act and the National Cyber ​​Security Plan, as well as the identification and elimination of regulatory gaps related to new technologies, can mitigate some of the risks posed by the technology and innovation revolution.

Ultimately, develop and successfully implement inclusive integrated national and continental strategies for the use of technology and innovation for a better future in Africa, building on the recommendations presented above. Inclusive prosperity requires that a variety of stakeholders – including firms, government agencies, nonprofits, and individuals of diverse backgrounds — test them for organizational and group bias. In addition, coordinated strategies promote policy coherence and equal implementation. Here, continental institutions (such as the African Union and its specialized agencies) can play a central role in balancing the interests of potential winners and losers.

In conclusionTo maximize technology and innovation, African governments and entrepreneurs need to be proactive, anticipate disruptive innovations and their consequences, build capacity and an enabling environment to unleash their potential, identify new niches for industry, exploit Africa’s unique strengths, invest in their youth and entrepreneurial populations, and collaborate between stakeholders to achieve sustainable, inclusive growth. Given the significant gaps in infrastructure and R&D production, Africa needs to improve its infrastructure and prepare its young workforce for new technologies to avoid asymmetric growth between it and the rest of the world. The future of Africa depends on success in this.

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