The African Union’s Agenda 2063 envisions a people-driven development for Africa, relying on the potential of African people, especially its women and youth. That’s why digital skills are prioritized in the African Union Digital Transformation Strategy 2020-2030, where the goal is to “build inclusive digital skills and human capacity across the digital sciences […] and technology policy & regulation”.
This column has always posited that Eswatini should not be left behind in the leapfrogging taking place in Africa. The same still holds in digital transformation matters in the country. In a chat I had with Minister for Commerce, Industry and Trade, Senator Manqoba Khumalo, sometime this year, it was heartwarming to note that he and his other colleagues recognize the pivotal role of policies and regulations in shaping societal and business practices and – if done correctly – how policies can support and encourage digital transformation.
Digital technologies offer new avenues for economic growth in Africa by accelerating job creation, supporting access to public services, and increasing productivity and innovation. However, significant challenges remain. For example, the lack of connectivity in remote and rural regions and the low use of digital technologies in connected areas is further disadvantaging the poor, women, and small businesses. In addition, increased cyber risks and lack of data protection have brought new threats and vulnerabilities to corporations, governments, and people. Even the delay in restoring online government services this week after a nationwide blackout is also a challenge.
Government policies and regulations are critical to enabling greater use of digital services while mitigating risks. But how best can the government intervene promptly in a changing technological environment? The response requires agile, enabling regulations to respond to market developments quickly, and facilitating the entry of new competitors for the benefit of consumers. Again, we can draw some lessons from how Kenya made this possible. In that country, a collaboration between the competition commission, the central bank, and the telecom regulator allowed digital financial service providers to access telecom services to offer mobile money services along mobile network operators. As a result, consumers benefitted from the broad availability of options for mobile payments. Later, the collaboration also facilitated interoperability between mobile money providers and banks, allowing consumers to seamlessly transfer funds between providers, top-up saving accounts, or use digital credit.
That is a perfect example of how government policies and regulations can improve citizens’ lives. As mentioned, the Eswatini government is doing its best to use digital technologies. An example is a recent collaboration between the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Trade and the e-Government Unit for an electronic queueing system for company registrations and renewals.
At the launch of this system, Minister Khumalo acknowledged that the new system would significantly reduce the long queues usually seen at the Ministry. In addition, the fact that it has a ticketing system would ensure clients are serviced fairly and without favour, thereby eliminating corruption.
He added, “I urge the nation to report misuse of the system by our officers. As a Ministry, we are improving company registrations and renewals, and we will also introduce something similar in the licensing department. In addition, we are looking at having a fully digital service, working in collaboration with the New Zealand Government”. This new approach is indeed commendable.
To implement such approaches, a change of mindset is first needed. Digital transformation, by its nature, is ever-changing and evolving; therefore, rigid policies and regulations will hamper progress. A shift from planning and controlling to piloting and implementing policies in a multi-stakeholder setting for rapid feedback and iteration is necessary. Feedback loops allow policies to be evaluated against the backdrop of the broader ecosystem to determine if they are still meeting citizens’ values and needs and considering the impact on the industry and private participation.
Some African countries implemented agile regulation principles to address various issues. For example, Ghana and South Africa responded swiftly to the COVID-19 pandemic demand for higher bandwidth by adjusting current regulations and making it easy for companies to offer higher bandwidth to citizens. In addition, Kenya and Zimbabwe quickly removed roadblocks and supported the roll-out of applications that allowed citizens to access mobile money transfers and other financial apps swiftly.
The African Union has consulted perspectives from businesses, civil society, and academia to develop policy frameworks on data and digital identities. This inclusive multi-stakeholder approach resulted in workable frameworks that encourage innovation through data sharing and cross-border data flows for African eCommerce while protecting the rights of individuals. These African Union frameworks on data and digital identities are essential to building an African Digital Single Market – the vision of the Smart Africa Alliance that all members of the African Union endorse. This is the Africa we want.
Dumi Jere is a verified member of Leaders for Climate Action & the Managing Partner at Talanta.co Consultancy Services, a management consultancy that partners with leaders in business and government to achieve meaningful, sustainable transformation.