Making Digital Development Work for Africa

Written by
Mukhisa Kituyi, Secretary-General of UNCTAD



We are living in a world of fast-paced digital transformation. The unprecedented speed and scale of change brought about by digital technology offer significant opportunities for sustainable development as well as complex challenges that require new policy responses in many areas.

As countries look to build on the fundamental benefits that this evolving digital economy can provide, it is essential to acknowledge that development depends on our collective readiness and ability to integrate smart policies and sound strategies. These must be as forward-looking, responsive and relevant as the innovative technology itself.

Africa is already tapping into the new possibilities unlocked by digitalization and the mobile revolution. At the same time, it is also the region that lags most behind in terms of the ability to engage in and benefit from e-commerce and the digital economy.

Three quarters of the African population are yet to start using the Internet. And in the UNCTAD B2C E-commerce Index 2017, the regional average index value for Africa was 28 compared with the world average of 54. This is our starting point.

Explore other articles from our Dialogue on African Development and the Digital Economy


To be clear, digital technologies will significantly affect most, if not all, of the Sustainable Development Goals. Nonetheless, far too little attention is given to make sure that the pipeline of opportunity stretches beyond 2030 and that digitalization leaves no-one behind.

The latest assessments show that only 1% of all Aid for Trade funding is currently devoted to ICT. Similarly, multilateral development banks are investing just 1% of their total commitments in ICT projects, and just 4% of this limited investment goes towards policy development.

quoteIn simple terms, insufficient emphasis on this area will result in missed economic opportunities for the next generation of African people and businesses.quote

In my role at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), I see the need to raise the awareness of the digital dimension of development in Africa and to ensure that these technologies will contribute to more inclusive development rather than the wider inequality and divides.

It is in this context that I am launching the UNCTAD Dialogue on African Development and the Digital Economy. The Dialogue will bring together the insight of carefully selected high-level thought leaders – from government, private sector, international organizations and academia – on the evolving digital economy in Africa and its implications for development in the region. It will run from today to the end of November and culminate in a High-Level Panel Discussion during the Africa eCommerce Week in Nairobi, on 10-14 December 2018.

The Dialogue will focus on a single question: how can governments and other stakeholders in the broader development community help ensure that the full social and economic potential of digital technologies in Africa can be realized while mitigating the associated risks and unwanted consequences?

The Dialogue is in line with other efforts of the United Nations to strengthen cooperation in the digital space among Governments, the private sector, civil society, international organizations, academia, the technical community and other relevant stakeholders. They include the High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation convened by the United Nations Secretary-General, and the UNCTAD-led eTrade for all initiative.

I thank all contributors in advance for sharing their ideas and insights on how we can make digitalization work for Africa. Also, I encourage everyone with a vision for this area to follow, engage with and support the Dialogue. Join us in Nairobi in December and contribute your ideas on how best to seize the incredible potential that the digital economy can provide. It is time for Africa and it is time to act.