In mid-November, Cape Town hosted the Africa Tech Festival, the continent’s largest and most influential tech event, where thousands of corporate, start-up, civil society and government leaders convened to forge the ties needed to accelerate Africa’s digitalisation and unlock its economic potential.
While promising, Africa’s rapid surge of broadband connectivity in recent years has created significant cross-border and internal digital divides that continue to impede the continent’s growth. As such, rolling out inclusive digital access to isolated regions and underserved communities topped the Africa Tech Festival’s agenda, alongside expanding the role of satellite connectivity as a development leapfrogging enabler and tackling energy insecurity.
In this climate, international private sector partnerships involving African firms with a deep understanding of local contexts, supported by strong public policies, will be essential in the rapid, geographically-targeted deployment of digital technologies needed to boost the continent’s faltering sustainable development agenda.
Africa’s digital drive facing major roadblocks
This year’s Africa Tech Festival has arrived at a crucial moment for the continent, with a UN report published in September revealing slow and inconsistent progress towards achieving its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and African Union Agenda 2063 targets.
While the report notably highlights encouraging headway made in 4G network coverage, access to digital connectivity – widely recognised as a vital SDG accelerator by economists such as Dr. Vera Songwe of the UN Economic Commission for Africa – remains highly uneven. According to the World Bank, only 36% of Africa’s population had broadband Internet access last year, while the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has warned that the continent faces one of the world’s widest digital gender gaps – 35% to 24% in 2020 – in addition to its development-hindering digital skills divide.
As Dr. Raymond Gilpin of the UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa has rightly emphasised, the continent must capitalise on digital technologies to innovate outdated, ineffective economic development models that continue to hold it back. Crucially, well-managed digitalisation will allow African citizens and businesses to benefit from high-value tech industries while optimising the farming sector’s productivity and enabling gender and geographically-inclusive access to education, finance and health services for communities left behind by recent progress.
As the Africa Tech Festival showcased, Africa needs innovative collaborations to rapidly roll out broadband coverage to its most remote corners, with dedicated discussions held amid major recent developments in this space.
Early October saw Elon Musk’s Starlink – SpaceX’s satellite internet division – and pan-African e-commerce giant Jumia Technologies unveil an ambitious new partnership to expand broadband across the continent. According to Jumia’s Chief Commercial Officer Hisham El Gabry, the firm will harness its local expertise to sell Starlink terminals and satellite kits in its countries of operation, starting in Nigeria before branching out into Kenya.
Jumia and Starlink are notably gearing this promising collaboration towards tackling Africa’s digital divide, with plans in place to sell Starlink terminals in areas without city mapping and formal addresses. Crucially, Jumia’s experience with Africa’s retail landscape will help SpaceX tailor Starlink prices to local market realities and encourage strong take-up.
Given Jumia’s 8.4 million consumers across Africa and intentions to eventually extend Starlink sales to 11 countries, the partnership is expected to connect millions of Africans, with El Gabry hailing that the continent “is poised to experience lightning-fast internet connectivity,” from the low-latency broadband provided by Starlink’s innovative, thousands-strong constellation of small, low-earth orbit satellites.
While Big Tech firms and Africa’s major telecom providers have historically struggled to reach remote areas, Telecel Group has emerged as a leader among African telcos in transcending the digital divide and fueling universal connectivity, notably sharing its experience with key industry and government players from its stand at the Africa Tech Festival.
Last April, Telecel and Lynk Global, the world’s only proven satellite-direct-to-standard phone provider, announced their second satellite telecom collaboration, which will see Lynk’s “cell towers in space” help Telecel expand its broadband coverage to all customers of Vodafone Ghana – in which it acquired a majority stake earlier this year. This latest venture builds on Telecel and Lynk’s 2021 satellite connectivity project in the Central African Republic, as well as well as Telecel’s rapid deployment of 300 new 4G sites to ramp up connectivity in Ghana.
Harnessing digitalisation to transform communities
Yet understanding that cutting-edge connectivity projects must be accompanied by the right socioeconomic initiatives to truly transform communities, Telecel partnered with world-leading accelerator and fellow Africa Tech Festival participant Startupbootcamp Afritech to launch the Africa Startup Initiative Programme (ASIP) at MWC Barcelona in 2019.
ASIP aims to support promising startups with the drive and innovative digital solutions to improve their communities, with alumni including Ustacky, an Edtech firm providing IT skills training to individuals and businesses; Agrix Tech, an AI-driven AgriTech startup helping farmers adopt profit-driving sustainable practices; and Herconomy, a female-focused fintech facilitating inclusive access to vital financial and economic opportunities.
UK-based satellite operator Avanti Communications has been an equally significant contributor to digital inclusion, with the impact of its Project iMlango in Kenya recognised at the Africa Tech Festival. Working with local schools and communities, Avanti has deployed its satellites to provide Internet connectivity and improve learning outcomes for over 180,000 learners in nearly 250 schools across Kenya, while its collaboration with the Global Partnership for Education on the Girls’ Education Awareness Programme aims to break down the sociological barriers preventing girls in Kenya from accessing digital education and reaching their potential.
Considering Africa’s energy insecurity and rolling blackouts remain additional obstacles to Africa’s tech adoption – notably hindering the potential productivity gains of digitalisation according to digital economic development expert Shamira Ahmed – South Africa MTN and Huawei’s collaborative green site power innovations were rightly spotlighted at the Africa Tech Festival. Between South Africa MTN’s deep understanding of the country’s load-shedding crisis and Huawei’s cutting-edge AI and OSS software solutions to access solar energy and optimise energy usage, this partnership is boosting network resilience while contributing to vital national energy-saving efforts.
With all of these issues highlighted at the Africa Tech Festival, the continent’s key tech stakeholders have displayed a strong grasp of what its communities need to thrive in the future. Crucially, the right cross-border connections are being established between the public, private and third sectors, taking the best of all worlds and harnessing innovation to accelerate progress where it’s needed most while creating opportunities for inclusive and sustainable growth.