Nigeria's former Minister for Communications Technology, Dr. Omobola Johnson, delivered the UN Economic Commission for Africa’s (ECA) annual Adebayo Adedeji at the ongoing Conference of Ministers in Marrakech, Morocco. The lecture is held annually in memory of Nigerian scholar Adebayo Adedeji – one of Africa’s leading proponent of regional integration.

Adedeji was the ECA’s 3rd and longest serving Executive Secretary (1975- 1991). He is renown and admired for his relentless calls for Africa to move away from conventional ideas of international trade and economic development. He is also credited for championing calls that led to the creation of ECOWAS. It is also widely accepted that his ideas form part of the pillars on which the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is anchored.

The 2019 lecture focused around the question of "Digital transformation in Africa: Hype or Reality?"

“There is enough evidence that Africa can be digitally transformed. But what is holding us back?" asked Dr Johnson when she delivered the lecture to ministers and a host of experts attending the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) Conference of Ministers.

The future of the World Wide Web in Africa

Recently, the World Wide Web celebrated 30 years, its inventor Tim Berners-Lee told a Nigerian audience that the country represents both the present and future of the web, when you look at how it is impacting lives in Nigeria, but also across Africa.

Economic experts agree that the success of Africa's trading bloc, will hugely depend on digital technology, tools and skills. Johnson cited a number of success stories across the continent and how they have used technology to provide services to the hitherto uncatered for or under served, but said that many challenges remained.

“Affordability is an issue: the internationally agreed target is for 1gb of data to cost no more than two percent of the average national monthly income. In Africa this currently stands at 8.76%, compared to 3.5% in Latin America or 1.54% in Asia. And the latest affordability reports show that this has increased over the past year.,” said Johnson.

Intra Africa trade and digital technology

Dr Johnson also called for an urgent need to strengthen the infrastructure and fibre network across Africa.

Currently when connecting Cape to Khartoum, she said, the connection will take them via London, New York, San Jose and Tokyo to arrive in Khartoum 409 milliseconds later. Dr Johnson also highlighted how most of Africa’s connections are via undersea cables connecting via Europe or elsewhere.

“It is the private sector that can solve this issue…but they also need to be supported and incentivized.”

“When you recognize these challenges and accept that there is a lack of scale amongst our start-ups it could be argued therefore that this digital transformation we speak about might be hyped. But the increased ownership of mobile phones and those that have access to it is having a true impact.,” said Johnson.

Despite certain metrics being ahead of schedule – smartphone penetration for example – this has not translated into macro-economic numbers as would have been expected. The percentage of banked for example, has only increased from 26% to 33% in those five years.