In his recent book, Know the Beginning Well, K.Y. Amoako recounts the beginning of the Information, Communications and Technology (ICT) revolution in Africa. As Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, Amoako—now the president of ACET—organized the first Regional Symposium on Telematic for Development in 1995. At that time, as the book recounts, Thabo Mbeki emphasized to the G7 that there were more telephone lines in Manhattan than all of Sub-Saharan Africa.
In the 26 years since that symposium, the world of ICT and innovation has evolved rapidly. By 2010, international development partners had moved from a focus on ICT to “Digital for Development” (D4D), applying technology for social, economic, and political development. This was a natural move as technology and development became more integrated and a narrow ICT approach was no longer relevant in many cases.
But development interventions remained largely sectoral with digital as an instrument rather than a driver. This approach has also now started to change, which offers an opportunity for more holistic development approaches.
In 2019 the World Bank launched its “digital moonshot” (now named Digital Economy for Africa (DE4A)), and in 2020 the European Commission and eleven EU member states launched the Digital for Development Hub to “inaugurate a new era for the global digital cooperation and to align digital initiatives for increased impact.”
But the international development community and developing countries should be addressing the role of digital in development more broadly and more deeply—specifically by focusing on innovation for transformation.
Embracing the broader innovation ecosystem
Why innovation for transformation? A limitation of the D4D agenda is that digital is often seen as a tool or instrument to further progress in a specific sector or to address a particular development challenge, rather than support broader economic and social transformation. This is reflected in the very limited number of purely digital policy projects by development partners, particularly in Africa.
Also, an innovation approach embraces—and can support—the broader innovation ecosystem that may have roots in technology, but are emanating from business, social interaction, and collaboration. The rise, for example, of social enterprises, new business models, global collaborative challenges, and new forms of invention go well beyond digital.
The D4D Hub, mentioned above, will form regional branches and the first one will be in Africa this year. The D4D Hubs will focus on local ownership, multi-stakeholder involvement, green digital transformation, a human-centric approach, and data security and protection.
The December 2020 launch event for the D4D hub garnered attention and attracted European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Chancellor Merkel of Germany, and three other Heads of Government from the EU, among others. But the event offered too little discussion on how to support innovative ecosystems in Africa or how to ensure that academia, researchers, the private sector, and government collaborate.
The World Bank’s Digital Economy for Africa initiative does have a focus on entrepreneurship, but mostly from a digital perspective. That said, many of its policy recommendations are applicable to innovation more broadly, for example, creating and expanding seed and scale-up funding. But most of the initiative is centered on the digital economy to include financial services and infrastructure, particularly internet access.
Supporting an African strategy
Both the World Bank Digital Economy for Africa initiative and the EU’s Digital for Development Hub are designed to support the African Union’s Digital Transformation Strategy. That strategy is ambitious and far-reaching, though its implementation is constrained by the AU’s capacity challenges. The strategy addresses numerous themes: digital trade, governance, infrastructure, and education and skills. It also covers innovation and why innovation is central to Africa’s economic transformation.
In fact, the AU strategy addresses the “innovation divide”, focusing on unequal ecosystems related to talent, investment, and resources—and on different aspects of technological, social, and financial innovation. The AU notes that realizing the vision of transformation for Africa will require an appropriate innovation and entrepreneurship development policy agenda that is different from what the international community is supporting today.
As we enter a post-COVID-19 world in 2021, innovation and technology will only continue to accelerate. We should envisage a mindset beyond “digital for development”, positioning country strategies and initiatives so that they support innovation-based economic transformation.
ACET’s forthcoming African Transformation Report addresses key aspects of developing an innovation for transformation approach. The report argues that Africa’s innovation activities are currently undertaken in silos and need to be replaced by greater integration of services and platforms. This move to an integrated innovation ecosystem, including digital, will greatly enhance the prospects for economic transformation.
A strong economic rebound after the COVID-19 pandemic will require a strong emphasis on innovation, which needs to be underpinned by country-specific policies. The international community will be critical to helping inform and design those policies. Innovation for transformation approaches should be at their core.
About the author
Rob Floyd is Director and Senior Advisor at ACET, heading the Washington DC office. He supports ACETs efforts to develop strategic partnerships, enhance its profile and deepen the ACET business model.