Building a Connected Africa: The Path to a Single Digital Market and a Prosperous Future
Baidy Sy, Digital Development Specialist
A single digital market across Africa will lower barriers to trade and communication. It will make the internet faster and more accessible. Content and services, hosted on local data centers, will be cheaper to download because they won’t go through expensive international connections. And better access to online communication, banking, or health care can make continent-wide connections with family and friends, businesses and lenders, doctors and patients easier.
Connections to neighboring countries, to regions, and to the entire continent are key to sparking economic growth, creating jobs, and moving Africa into the digital age. Long term, the goals are ambitious: to create a single and secure digital market across Africa alongside free trade areas on the ground. To build regional links that eliminate roaming charges. To improve cross-border trade across the continent by creating the largest free-trade area in the world. This kind of connectivity, both digital and at national borders, was one of the major themes at the 2023 Dakar Financing Summit held in February given that an objective of the African Union is to build a secured single digital market in Africa by 2030, an effort supported by the World Bank’s Digital Economy for Africa (DE4A) initiative.
These goals require large investments in broadband connectivity, secure data infrastructure, and the governmental and legal reforms that can spark competition. Building digital and physical connections by eliminating barriers like broadband coverage gaps, digital illiteracy, and even red tape and paperwork at ports and land borders will allow people and businesses across Africa to reach bigger markets, build businesses, and create jobs.
For example, Diaobé, Senegal, is a rural market town in the southern part of the country near Guinea. Every week businesspeople and entrepreneurs meet to trade dried fish, palm oil, honey and more. Improving connectivity in Diaobé would be a real-world example of how to boost trade in the region. Since Diaobé is a regional economic hub, strong connectivity would promote economic growth. Digital payments for buying and selling, ordering goods online, locating merchandise using GPS—all of these digital tools would make it faster and easier for people to work and that, in turn, would attract still more businesses and customers to Diaobé. Of course, more people and more money coming to town would mean additional business for many other businesses – cafes, hotels, street vendors – creating a positive spillover effect.
But financing and investment in the infrastructure that builds connectivity is vital. Billions in public sector investment is needed to achieve universal access to broadband connectivity in Africa by 2030. And these investments must be accompanied by policy and regulatory reforms that create a safe and alluring environment for private investors. Strong continent-wide cybersecurity will also be important for building trust and ensuring Africa’s digital single market works safely and securely.
Today, though, about two thirds of the continent, 900 million people, are still not connected to the internet. In Western and Central Africa, in 2022, only 34% of the population had access to broadband connectivity. That number is even lower in Eastern and Southern Africa, while in North Africa, a bit less than half of the population is connected. Countries below the regional average, like the Central African Republic, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, require special focus.
Across Africa, there are signs of movement. The Africa ICT Alliance is a private sector-led group of international corporations, companies, organizations, and people in information technology and communication. It has grown from a membership of 6 countries to 40. A new data protection law in Nigeria, which aims to protect privacy and the safe exchange of personal data, has created over 5,000 jobs. Nigeria is also investing in reducing gaps in internet coverage by licensing Starlink satellites to provide access to underserved areas. Training programs, online courses, and digital skills education are in high demand across Africa.
Going forward, regional economic commissions can play a key role in accelerating digitalization and groups in Africa are stepping up efforts that encourage cooperation across member states. At the Dakar Financing Summit, representatives from both Eastern and Western African groups underscored that promoting the emergence of single digital markets is a shared agenda across the continent. There is tremendous potential when it comes to a single digital market and making digital infrastructure as common as electricity and transport networks will be key to success.
At the continental level, this work will require a renewed commitment to cross-border integration – building toward a single digital market for Africa. This regional collaboration will be critical to generate the economies of scale, network effects and cooperation critical to enable African digital firms to compete regionally and globally, to create the investment case for digital infrastructure and to boost access to digital services, e-commerce and opportunities for all African citizens and businesses regardless of location. This effort, together with public and private investments will help build the foundations for a future-ready Africa.