African digital leaders address regional connectivity challenges ahead of World Telecommunication Development Conference

Delegates at ITU-ATU preparatory meeting launch “Digital Trends Africa 2021”, discuss COVID-19 impact and hear youth perspectives on digital development.

The third of six meetings to prepare for the ITU World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC-21) took place on 29 and 30 March, with a focus on digital challenges and opportunities for countries, the industry and citizens across Africa.

Held virtually and co-organized with the African Telecommunications Union (ATU), the Regional Preparatory Meeting (RPM) for Africa  gathered more than 300 delegates from 33 countries to ensure regional coordination ahead of WTDC-21, set to happen in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from 8 to 19 November 2021.

WTDC-21 aims to highlight innovative approaches, encourage new models of collaboration, and promote connectivity and digital solutions, particularly in this final Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations.

“For all of us to be ready, all African countries must be individually ready,” said the ATU Secretary-General, John Omo, encouraging ATU member states to participate actively in WTDC-21. “This is only possible through a demonstration of sober and visible efforts, especially in this preparatory phase.”

Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau, added: “In today’s complex and challenging environment, solving the many complex connectivity challenges faced by the African region cannot be done alone. Real progress will depend on broad, multi-stakeholder digital cooperation. Building broad consensus around concrete ways forward – and finding new and effective ways to work together to achieve the impact we need – is what we hope to achieve at WTDC-21 in November.”

Joint hosting with the ATU helped to ensure participation from every part of the continent, bringing “additional value and synergies to our discussions,” she added.

Proposed regional priorities 

WTDC-21 aims to forge a global plan for digital development over the next four years, providing future direction and guidance to the ITU Telecommunication Development Sector (ITU-D).

Participants at RPM Africa proposed the following regional priorities for the years 2022-2025:

  • Support digital transformation to usher a rapid transition to digital economy while accelerating innovation in Africa;
  • Implement and expand broadband infrastructures, connectivity and emerging technologies;
  • Build trust, safety and security in the use of telecommunication/information and communication technology, and protect personal data;
  • Foster digital industries and innovation ecosystems.

Andrew Rugege, ITU Regional Director for Africa, said: “COVID-19 has shown us how critical ICTs are in our daily lives. This joint ITU/ATU Regional Preparatory Meeting is timely, in that it provided a platform for our members to deliberate on what digital strategies and policies should be tabled at the World Telecommunication Development Conference, to help Africa not only mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic but also build back better.”

The meeting was opened by Hadja Fatimata Ouattara, Minister of Digital Economy, Posts, and Digital Transformation of Burkina Faso and host of RPM Africa. The event also benefited from the presence and support of Amani Abou-Zeid, Commissioner of Infrastructure and Energy of the African Union Commission, Oliver Chinganya, Director for the African Centre for Statistics and Head of the Digital Centre of Excellence, on behalf of Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, and Mesfin Belachew Tefera on behalf of Ahmedin Mohammed, Minister of Innovation and Technology of Ethiopia.

Digital Trends in Africa 2021

A report released at the regional meeting, Digital Trends in Africa 2021, offers an overview of trends and developments in ICT infrastructure, access and use in Africa. The report can serve as a reference for the ITU membership in reviewing progress and identifying ICT regional development priorities.

Mobile network coverage stands at 88.4% but the lack of affordability, skills or meaningful access continue to hinder digital development, with such obstacles being further magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Compared to other major world regions, Africa is where regulatory frameworks have evolved the most over the past 10 years, the report finds. Today, 64% of African countries have either overarching national policies or an ICT master plan, up from less than 40% five years ago.

According to the report, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed consumers, businesses and governments in Africa to adopt digital services and technologies wherever digital access was available. This has accelerated digital transformation and changed the prevailing mindset on advanced network technologies.

Generation Connect Africa Youth Group Declaration

The Generation Connect Africa Youth Group (GC-AFR) comprises of 26 competitively selected young people from all across the region. The group was established within the framework of the Generation Connect initiative to promote meaningful youth engagement and participation in the international dialogue on digital development.

Ahead of RPM Africa, members worked together to identify regional digital priorities and discuss related opportunities and challenges. Key priorities include: Digital Infrastructure and Technologies, Digital Inclusion, Capacity Development, Digital Services and Applications, Digital Innovation Ecosystem, Cybersecurity, and Policy and Regulation.

The Africa Youth Group’s declaration, presented at the RPM, outlines the perspectives and concerns of youth relating to these priorities and proposes key actions for regional consideration. Youth Group participants will remain engaged in the run-up to WTDC-21, including the preceding Generation Connect Youth Summit.

Network of Women for the ITU Telecommunication Development Sector

A side-event on 30 March unveiled the Africa Network of Women (NoW) for WTDC-21. Prominent women and role models in the technology sector in Africa convened to share, support and inspire others. The network seeks to increase the visibility of opportunities for women in the sector, strengthen and promote female participation in ITU’s activities and create a trusted community and platform for exchange.

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