The promises and perils of Africa's digital revolution!

Jun 22, 2022, 10:45 AM

Across the African continent, the relentless spread of networks, sensors, artificial intelligence, and automation is driving a revolution to an unknown destination.

Emerging technologies such as CCTV cameras with facial recognition systems, drones, robots, and “smart cities” are proliferating. Digitization is improving government revenue collection and curbing corruption. Cameras and facial recognition technologies are helping authorities respond to terrorist attacks. Drones are delivering life-saving medical supplies. Yet with each advance there is a cost. Sophisticated malware enables novel forms of criminality, surveillance technology powers new tactics of repression, drones unleash the prospect of an autonomous weapons arms race.

Emerging technology is having a powerful impact on the security and stability of African states. Yet the digital revolution’s ultimate legacy will be determined not by technology, but by how it is used. African countries that take advantage of the opportunities and limit the risks inherent in emerging technology may achieve greater peace and prosperity. Yet many countries could be left behind.  As the continent recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, its leaders face a choice between harnessing emerging technology to improve government effectiveness, increase transparency and foster inclusion, or as a tool of repression, division, and conflict.

The rapid spread of the internet across the African continent has been heralded as a key driver of prosperity and a sign of the continent’s technological coming of age. Today, at least a quarter of the population has internet access, a nearly fifty-fold increase in internet usage since the turn of the millennium. By 2030, the continent could achieve rough parity with the rest of the world when three quarters of Africans are projected to become internet users.  The economic potential is enormous: Mobile technologies alone have already generated 1.7 million jobs and contribute $144 billion to the continent’s economy, or roughly 8.5% of GDP.

Some African countries have taken advantage of rapid increases in internet penetration to make concrete improvements in the lives of citizens. Led by the rise of platforms such as Kenya’s M-PESA, Africa has leapt ahead of other regions to become a center of mobile, peer-to-peer finance. The continent registers close to half of the world’s mobile money accounts. Sierra Leone, one of the world’s poorest countries, recently established a Directorate of Science, Innovation and Technology (DST). Its initiatives include a “national financial data architecture with embedded automated financial tools” intended to improve service delivery and reduce corruption. These are just two examples of how digitization can provide a cheap, secure source of finance to populations in need and improve government transparency in countries where official graft is a universal concern.

Nevertheless, the rapid spread of the internet across Africa has downsides. For one, without affordable internet and reliable power, broadband internet access will remain out of reach for many low-income Africans living in rural areas. The relationship between internet access and household welfare in Africa is strong: One study from Senegal associated 3G internet coverage with a 14 percent increase in consumption and a 10 percent decline in poverty. Thus, countries that do not address internet access issues risk limiting the opportunities of their citizens, exacerbating already-substantial inequality, and inflaming regional, political, and ethnic divides.

More broadly, digitization brings with it vulnerabilities that expose countries to cyber espionage, critical infrastructure sabotage, and crime.

Guest Editorial

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