Inside Africa’s bid for digital economy

Bank of Kigali chief executive Diane Karusisi speaks at the Investment Forum in Kigali yesterday. Emmanuel Kwizera.

Network infrastructure and connectivity are backbone of a vibrant digital economy.

Yet, there is still a big gap when it comes to linkages in transport, communications, energy, and water networks across the African continent.

This was observed on Tuesday at the ‘Investment Forum’ organised by the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) and Africa50, ahead of the latter’s Annual General Shareholders’ Meeting on Wednesday.

At the forum, experts from the banking sector, technology, and health, made a case for increased investment to bridge the gap in Africa’s infrastructure connectivity, which they said will be realised through private and public partnerships.

Infrastructure funding gap in Africa is estimated to be around $130-170 billion a year, according to the African Development Bank.

To bridge such a gap, Diane Karusisi, the chief executive officer of Bank of Kigali, cited a case of Rwanda and the lead that Government took to lay out broadband infrastructure to enhance connectivity.

“Rwanda was a pioneer in laying the fibre optic backbone across the country to enable last-mile connectivity. This has helped businesses a lot – those in smart transportation and bankers like us – to ensure our customers easily transact on their mobile phones from wherever they are,” she said.

The fibre optic backbone has also seen more people in Rwanda connect to the internet, and currently, internet penetration stands at about 50 per cent of the population.

Harkirit Singh, the Global Head of Solutions for Tata Communications shared his experience working in Tanzania in the 1990’s, and said connectivity drives many sectors and economies.

“My first job back in 1997 was to set up a first telephone link connecting Tanzanian tea plantation farmers and Tanzania Telecom Corporation, and I have seen the delight that people had than they had before,” he said.

Digital strategy

Singh said that connectivity provides opportunities which drive economies, emphasising the need to create conducive frameworks for entrepreneurs and investors, something he said propelled his country, India, to develop fast.

“In India, we did not create innovation hubs or an innovation city, what we created is the enabling framework that allowed people to be sure that when they come up with some technology or innovations, they are going to be protected,” he said.

That same framework [the National Digital Strategy], he said, also allowed people to receive support from financial institutions in terms of investment they are looking to build, as well as support from academic institutions like Indian Institutes of Technology.

These institutions have enabled India’s mobile digital revolution and have trained outstanding technologists and engineers who work for multinational corporations such as Google, Amazon and Facebook.

Most of these are companies that are building digital infrastructure, allowing millions of people to do business without relying on traditional infrastructure.

Singh said it was, therefore, important for African governments to invest significant resources in educational institutes that are able to train the next generation of engineers and adopt innovative financing models for connectivity.

“We are working with Google and Facebook to promote open internet access and the model is innovative. If today we set up Wi-Fi infrastructure on buses, railways and across the city in Kigali, the number of people using application on that platform, every time they click using that Wi-Fi infrastructure, Google and Facebook pays back,” Singh says.

Such financing model is being adopted by big technology companies to expand their reach, especially in rural areas and this is helping bring connectivity access to people living in remote areas.

Bridging the gap

A recent report by the Global Infrastructure Hub which focused on ten African countries –Rwanda, Morocco, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Egypt, Ghana, Tunisia, Benin, and Guinea – indicated that there was a huge financing gap.

To keep pace with success stories elsewhere such as Vietnam in terms of developing roads, railways, airports, sea ports, electricity, water and physical telecommunications infrastructure, these nations require investments of $2 trillion through 2040.

Patrick Singa, a Medical Director at babyl – a startup that provides digital healthcare solutions by helping patients consult doctors using their mobile phones – said they are finding a way around physical infrastructure to bring innovative solutions to people in need.

“We are tapping into digital platforms that are affordable and accessible to offer services to people. We are now using USSD (a global system for mobile phones) to allow patients to consult doctors,” he noted.

But Singa reckons that there is an urgent need to liberalise the digital space, especially to break the monopoly of services like data hosting and network provision offered by telecom companies and other big companies.

For Alex Ntare, the head of the ICT Chamber in Rwanda, connectivity services for basic needs like that provided by babyl and education should not be subjected to the same pricing as those that are entirely commercial in nature.

editor@newtimesrwanda.com

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