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Three Paths to Accelerating Digital Access in West and Central Africa

Ousmane Diagana, Vice President, Western and Central Africa

Just before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic struck, just over half of the world’s population approximately (51%) had access to the internet compared with just 30% in Western and Central Africa. With the strict lockdown implemented during the pandemic, many services were only available to people across the region through the internet.

Ever since, the need for universal, affordable, and safe high-speed connectivity has increased exponentially. West African countries will not be left behind and will need to deepen reforms and attract the necessary investments for increased digitalization of services, an essential condition for strong, resilient, green economic growth and quality job creation.

The stakes are therefore high and the region is showing tremendous potential and opportunities. Although the challenges are not to be underestimated, this potential allows us to hope that West and Central Africa will accelerate the digitalization of its economy. What will it take? Three important steps:

Four Challenges 

First, we must tackle the digital divide to provide access, usage, and affordability of the internet. Many West and central African countries have been facing four main challenges: low network coverage and quality, high operating costs, barriers to market entry, lack of competition, and high operating and investment risks.

Providing financial services via mobile phones can be difficult when only 40% of West Africans own a cell phone. This underlines the existing disparity between “the haves” and the “have-nots” when it comes to access and affordability of devices, the internet, and digital tools. This disparity also disproportionately affects rural populations, women, and vulnerable groups in the region. And there are significant differences across Africa.

While people in the Central African Republic pay more than 20% of their average earnings for 1GB of mobile broadband data, Egyptians only pay 0.5%.

In Senegal, only 26% of small firms use smartphones, compared with 65% in Brazil. During a pandemic, access to a smartphone not only connects people via messaging, but it can be a useful tool for businesses and economies.

Government Regulation

According to a World Bank/UN Broadband Commission report, it is estimated that the cost of closing this digital divide by 2030 in Africa alone will be US $100 billion.

This is why we must increase investments and attract the needed operators and strategic partners by mobilizing private capital, addressing capital risks, and building strategic alliances between governments and private operators.

We must also support the design and implementation of policies and regulations that de-risk and promote private investment in digital infrastructure. These two levers will help address the issues of affordability and make connectivity productive.

As digital infrastructure improves, there is a need for both the public and private sectors to promote and incentivize internet uptake by developing systems and applications that allow people to do meaningful transactions online, such as applying for government services, opening bank accounts, and applying for credit.

Unlocking New Opportunities with Digitalization 

Second, we must build ‘digital stacks’. Our research estimates that half a billion people in Africa lack an official ID, making it difficult for them to access key services and thus being denied the opportunities being created by digitalization.

Identification systems in some countries in West Africa are not yet inclusive and trusted. Current manual, paper-based approaches for identifying their population makes it hard for governments and the private sector to improve how their services are delivered and to reduce fraud and waste.

Digital IDs aligned with the ten Principles on Identification for Sustainable Development offer a solution to this, providing the opportunity to expand and transform delivery of healthcare, education, financial, and other key services, especially for rural populations, women, and the most vulnerable groups.

The good news is that many African countries are well on their way to developing these processes, and many are doing so with technical and financial support from the World Bank and our Identification for Development (ID4D) initiative.

Reliable Data

Digital IDs are one of three components of “digital stacks,” along with digital payments and trusted data platforms. A digital stack allows people and businesses to prove and verify their identity securely, make and receive payments fast and easily, and share and verify personal data, such as credit histories and academic qualifications.

Together, these functions unlock significant social and economic benefits and accelerate the transition to digital economies, societies and governments.

To succeed in the digital transformation agenda, we must work together to empower Africans with greater agency over their personal data and help governments ensure that cash transfers programs and services reach the right beneficiaries, reduce fraud and fiscal leakages.

This needs “whole-of-country” strategies, with strong leadership and coordination at the policy-level. It also needs the definition and implementation of common standards to ensure interoperability at the technical level, a strong data protection, and cybersecurity frameworks.

Finally, we must think boldly with regional and continental approaches. While continuing to drive digitalization efforts at the national level, West African countries must look beyond their own borders. I believe that success in the digital economy requires economies of scale and network effects far beyond what any individual country can muster on its own.

Time for a Single Digital Market in Africa. 

Our research in East Africa shows that a more deeply integrated and competitive digital market among the six East African Community (EAC) countries alone would generate up to a US$2.6 billion boost in GDP and 4.5 million new jobs in the subregion.  The potential of an integrated digital market in West Africa and at the continental scale is even greater.

To make this vision a reality, we need to support countries in modernizing and harmonizing telecoms and data policies and regulations to promote regional scale investments in broadband and cloud infrastructure and widespread access to relevant digital content and services – including in lagging areas. It will also require streamlining and harmonizing business registration and digital taxation policies, and enabling fast, low-cost, and reliable cross border digital to unlock digital trade and e-Commerce.

But none of this can happen overnight. A digital transformation in Africa will require greater leadership and collaboration from Governments, the Private Sector and Civil Society. We are working closely with sub-regional, continental and international partners, such as the African Union Commission (AUC), the Regional Economic Communities, and Smart Africa.

The COVID-19 pandemic shows a unique opportunity to reverse inequality and promote strong economic growth.  Accelerating Africa’s digital transformation can be a part of this reality. It will require closing the digital divide, building digital stacks, and achieving a Single Digital Market. We need to act now.

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WEF

Embracing new technologies defines a company’s competitiveness on the market today, its efficient operation and its future development. As businesses go remote, many of them transfer their valuable data to the cloud – experts predict up to 60% will be using external provider services by 2022. This allows companies to tune internal communications, process and store larger amounts of data and deliver more value to customers.

The Digital Transformation Officer (DTO) plays the key role in managing the strategic approach necessary to successfully undertake such transformations. Part of that success means managing cyber-risk. In fact, the World Economic Forum, in its guidance to boards of directors, recommends that organizational design supports cybersecurity. The DTO has significant responsibility in making sure this important obligation is met.

Among IT initiatives worldwide, digital transformation is a leading priority.
Among IT initiatives worldwide, digital transformation is a leading priority.
Image: Statista

Investments in digital transformation are projected to reach $1.78 trillion in 2022. In this regard, the DTO plays the key role – their task is to drive the company’s digital transformation by ensuring seamless integration of novel technologies into business operations. This mission is complex and does not only mean introducing new software and hardware. It is about full revision of internal and external processes, training of staff, and, perhaps most crucially, implementing new approaches to security.

The need for the effective cybersecurity is growing in parallel with the increasing digitalization of work processes. Over the past two years, many industries have seen a substantial rise in security incidents.

Cyberattacks are rising across multiple sectors worldwide.
Cyberattacks are rising across multiple sectors worldwide.
Image: ENISA

 

Unless a DTO pays sufficient attention to security, one incident may disrupt the whole strategy of a company’s transformation and future development, bringing enormous financial and reputational damage. For example, in 2021 the average cost of a data breach has risen to $4.24 million, the highest in the past 17 years.

The main challenge for a DTO is not only to take a company to new heights through digital transformation, but to ensure that transformation is sustainable. This means she or he must ensure continuity of the company’s processes and not let a single cyberattack disrupt operations. With that in mind, cybersecurity becomes an integral part of every digital transformation strategy.

We recommend DTOs consider the following trends:

1. Securing digital assets

Moving to remote work revealed a lot of challenges and new risks – one in five companies were not ready to ensure stable business processes in case of failures in their IT infrastructure. To stay on the safe side, a DTO should manage a detailed inventory of digital assets. This will point out the most important resources that require protection in the first place, be they data, network repositories or workplaces; it may also reveal a wide range of unaccounted assets that could appear during digitalization. BI.ZONE research shows that 60% of data leaks and 85% of network compromises are linked with such assets. These incidents may disrupt the company’s daily operations. To avoid that, the digital assets need to be accounted and secure.

2. Cloud security

Moving to cloud offers companies significant flexibility as well as potential security benefits. Still, there are certain challenges, most commonly when a company becomes dependent on only one cloud service provider, e.g. due to specific data storage formats. In the event of vendor lock-out – if the service provider goes bankrupt, leaves the market, or suffers a cybersecurity incident itself – all the company systems in the cloud will be unavailable. In light of these challenges, the DTO needs to have a deep understanding of how their company is using and securing the cloud. It is important to learn in advance what solutions and formats are utilized by the supplier, as well as their compatibility with formats by other vendors, and to assess the cybersecurity level of this supplier. A DTO can arrange this internally or hire third-party IT experts for help.

3. Developing skills to operate novel technologies securely

Recognizing the human factor in digital transformation may offer significant benefits. Digital transformation requires new skills both from technical and non-technical specialists. Human mistakes and lack of knowledge often lead to cyber-incidents, notwithstanding a company’s investments into expensive security means. BI.ZONE research shows 80% of successful cyberattacks utilize social engineering methods. Therefore, a DTO can reduce the risks of incidents by promoting regular trainings for every employee and top management on how to work safely in the new digital reality.

4. New approaches to cyber-incident management

If any crisis strikes, the company should be ready at all levels to keep the operations going. A DTO should work closely with the company’s Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) to improve and regularly update business continuity and incident response plans, and to promote regular crisis-management trainings for all company members, including the board. Also, it is important for a DTO to be aware of the latest trends, and to test and introduce new methods of incident management. For example, there are managed detection and response services that foresee proactive approach to threats, or threat intelligence for building better security. Smooth introduction of these approaches may require specific experience and supervision of experts.

5. Outsourcing cybersecurity tasks

As digital transformation is an ongoing process, these tasks are complex, require substantial investments and may turn out rather difficult for a company to deal with. Besides, businesses are facing a deficit of qualified personnel – the global shortage for cybersecurity specialists has hit 3 million. Today there are expert organizations that help companies to go through digital transformation securely. They possess the required experience and capacities, the expensive equipment and software, and are aware of the tendencies within the field. They can also help to address cybersecurity issues and avoid common mistakes.

Digital transformation is a challenging but manageable task. It is important for a DTO to work as a team with the CISO, senior leadership, and the board and to stay tuned with the rapid changes in business and technologies. Addressing all the elements in a cross-functional way and prioritizing cybersecurity will facilitate secure digital transformation and ensure your company’s stable development for years to come.

Embracing new technologies defines a company’s competitiveness on the market today, its efficient operation and its future development. As businesses go remote, many of them transfer their valuable data to the cloud – experts predict...

ITU

Providing everyone with a transaction account to send and receive money electronically is widely considered the first step towards financial inclusion. For the unbanked, such accounts are seen as the gateway to savings, credit, insurance and a host of other financial activities and services.

Ongoing advances in financial technology (fintech) have introduced new ways to expand access to financial services and the range of services on offer, both for experienced customers and for unbanked people gaining access to transaction accounts for the first time.

Alongside the traditional offerings, some banks have moved to support “open banking” in coordination with third-party online service providers.

Innovations in fields like big data analytics, digital identity and biometrics have ushered in new ways to assess creditworthiness and onboard new customers.

With transaction accounts now offered not just by banks, but also increasingly via mobile money providers and other non-bank platforms, a wide range of players can be involved in enabling payments.

For financial regulators, this raises a range of questions, with the imperative to spur fintech innovation being balanced against the responsibility to manage risks.

Guiding principles

Guiding principles for Payment Aspects of Financial Inclusion (PAFI), released in 2016 and updated in 2020, rest on public and private-sector commitments to provide everyone with access to a transaction account, a suitable supporting legal and regulatory framework, and the necessary financial and digital infrastructure.

Fintech’s rapid rise to prominence in recent years has led to further review of PAFI principles, again led by the World Bank Group and the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures (CPMI) of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS). This time, the institutions focused on detailing how the PAFI principles apply to the latest fintech innovations.

The latest report notes fintech’s potential to broaden financial inclusion through initiatives embedded in wider country-level reforms.

Inclusive payment systems depend on close coordination between regulatory authorities and industry players, both to harmonize oversight and establish resilient infrastructure for electronic payments.

The right balance is needed between increasing efficiency and ensuring safety, as well as between enhancing the customer experience and protecting personal data.

The movement towards increasingly digital financial life, industry experts caution, may deepen exclusion for some.

Striking the balance

Source: Bank for International Settlements and World Bank Group (2020): Payment aspects of financial inclusion in the fintech era.

Tracking financial inclusion

To help national authorities apply PAFI guidance, the project provides guidance for diagnostic studies to track transaction account access and use. The toolkit allows comparisons against international benchmarks or within each jurisdiction over time as countries strive for more inclusive payment systems.

Morocco’s inclusion strategy

The PAFI toolkit forms part of a country-level self-assessment for Morocco’s financial sector, says Hakima El Alami, Director of Payment Systems and Instruments Oversight and Financial Inclusion Directorate at Bank Al-Maghrib, the country’s central bank.

Morocco is making fintech solutions part of its national Financial Inclusion Strategy — which aims to give all citizens and businesses fair access to formal financial products and services, she said during the recent Financial Inclusion Global Initiative (FIGI) Symposium.

Albania builds trust

Market access for new entrants also requires careful consideration, so that entities of all sizes enjoy equal opportunities for competition.

“From our perspective as a regulator, we need the market to have as many alternatives as possible, and this comes into force only with tools like a framework, infrastructure, and giving access in a secure and mitigated way,” said Ledia Bregu, Director of Payments in the Bank of Albania’s Accounting and Finance Department.

Bregu cited financial literacy as a key challenge, along with building customer confidence.

“When we speak about innovation and fintech, we need to build trust, so the new or unbanked part of the population has the same understanding and the same trust to use innovative tools to become more financially included.”

Financial inclusion can drive investment and economic development — important considerations for Albania and other relatively small economies in the Western Balkans, she adds. “At the end of the day we see it as a tool for economic growth,” says Bregu.

Mexico seeks network effects

Exponential tech growth means not only new services, but also new types of firms providing services, says Miguel Manuel Díaz, Director of Payment Systems and Infrastructure at Banxico.

This, he believes, has ramped up the pressure on central banks and other regulators.

According to Díaz, five key balances need to be maintained by authorities working to accommodate new types of industry players and services:

  1. Innovation versus risk mitigation;
  2. Economies of scale versus competition;
  3. Efficiency versus system security;
  4. Achieving diversity versus efficient system standardization; and
  5. Privacy versus security requirements.

Díaz sees two key tools to expand access to payment services while mitigating associated risks:

First, a central enabling infrastructure available to everyone. This supports competition among payment services and introduces network effects that help services reach as many people as possible.

Second, in-depth analysis to ensure the consistency of regulations with new market realities. For example, regulators may consider shifting from overseeing different types of institutions towards overseeing the different functions involved in providing a service.

South Africa recognizes limits of current regulation

While financial inclusion is a high priority today, this was not always the case in South Africa, says Pearl Malumane, Senior Analyst in the Policy and Regulation Division at the South African Reserve Bank.

“Over the years, the focus has always been on financial stability, but other regulators and also the South African Reserve Bank have come to realize the importance of financial inclusion,” she says.

“As a result, we have seen the growth of fintechs in South Africa, but we are aware that there are limits in our current regulatory framework. It is very restrictive in terms of what type of payment activities fintechs, or non-banks, are allowed to do.”

But the industry and its regulators need to persist in finding the right way forward, Malumane says. “Where fintech is enabled, it will enhance not only financial inclusion but also competition and innovation in the national payment system and throughout the country,” she says.

Note: This article is based on a panel discussion during the 2021 Financial Inclusion Global Initiative (FIGI) Symposium.
Play the session recording.

Providing everyone with a transaction account to send and receive money electronically is widely considered the first step towards financial inclusion. For the unbanked, such accounts are seen as the gateway to savings, credit, insurance...

WTO

“Digital Jobs Albania” is a new World Bank initiative that will help women in Albania gain better access to online work opportunities and connect with the global economy. The initiative will provide intensive 3-month training in digital skills for women aged 16-35 years, empowering them to access online freelancer job opportunities in graphic design, web development and digital marketing.

The emergence of online freelancer job markets is creating new opportunities for Albanians to connect with the global economy. Websites such as Upwork, Fiverr and People Per Hour allow Albanians with the right skills to access online project work commissioned by companies and individuals anywhere in the world, while staying in their local communities.

Women in particular stand to gain. The female labor force participation in Albania is still 14.6 percentage points lower than for males. The gender pay gap remains 6.6 percent, according to 2020 data from the Albanian National Statistical Authority (INSTAT). The emerging online freelancing work model can play an important role in narrowing these gaps. Flexible work hours and the ability to work from home can help more women with the right skills stay in the labor market and gain financial independence.

The Digital Jobs Albania initiative, implemented in partnership with the Government of Albania, Coderstrust (an international digital skills training provider), and EuroPartners Development (a local consulting company), will provide an online training program to equip selected participants with in-demand technical skills. It will also provide mentorship to participants and help them develop the soft skills needed to successfully compete for project work on online freelancer websites.

“This initiative offers an exciting new opportunity for Albanian women to acquire digital skills and join the online economy – a blueprint to inspire future projects in this space,” says Emanuel Salinas, World Bank Country Manager for Albania. “No one can afford to be left behind in the ongoing digital transformation.”

The initiative is part of broader ongoing World Bank engagement in Albania to help the country leverage the economic opportunities associated with digital trade in goods and services.

“Albania has recognized the importance of digital markets as an opportunity for economic development. We have mobilized a team from across the World Bank to support this effort, through this new initiative and others in the future,” says Christoph Ungerer, the World Bank task team leader for the Albania Digital Trade Project.

To learn more about the Digital Jobs Albania initiative and how to participate in it, please visit: https://www.digitaljobsalbania.com/

“Digital Jobs Albania” is a new World Bank initiative that will help women in Albania gain better access to online work opportunities and connect with the global economy. The initiative will provide intensive 3-month training...

UNCTAD

The funds will support activities that can enable more countries to engage in and benefit from the evolving digital economy.

 

Switzerland has announced a contribution of $4.4 million (4 million Swiss francs) to UNCTAD’s e-commerce and digital economy programme.

The funds to be provided through the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) will support the programme’s technical cooperation, research and consensus-building activities until 2024.

UNCTAD and Switzerland signed an agreement on 13 September.

“We sincerely thank Switzerland for the generous contribution,” said Isabelle Durant, deputy secretary-general of UNCTAD. “The financial support will enable us to scale up our efforts to foster more inclusive and sustainable development gains from e-commerce and the digital economy for people and businesses in developing countries.”

“Switzerland is proud to contribute to UNCTAD’s programme on e-commerce, which supports the establishment of favourable framework conditions for e-commerce in developing and least developed countries,” said Didier Chambovey, ambassador of the Swiss Permanent Mission to the World Trade Organization and the European Free Trade Association.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic revealed, a robust e-commerce ecosystem is needed to maintain trade flows and mitigate economic and social consequences in times of crisis, particularly in the most vulnerable countries.”

Spreading the benefits of the digital economy

The UNCTAD programme aims to reduce inequality, enable the benefits of digitalization to reach all people and ensure that no one is left behind in the evolving digital economy.

Its activities include, among others, the biennial Digital Economy Report, the eCommerce Week, eTrade for alleTrade for Women and eTrade readiness assessments.

The Swiss contribution will boost the programme’s ability to respond to the growing demand from countries for UNCTAD’s support, not least in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic has accentuated the need to support countries with the lowest levels of readiness to take advantage of the opportunities and mitigate the risks presented by digitalization.

Committed to digitalization

The contribution demonstrates Switzerland’s commitment to strengthening its support to digitalization in line with its International Cooperation Strategy for 2021-24 and its Digital Foreign Policy Strategy 2021-2024, both of which recognize the role of digitalization in meeting current and future development challenges.

The contribution will finance at least three eTrade readiness assessments, which will provide a diagnostic of the state of e-commerce in the countries concerned, covering seven policy areas considered most relevant for e-commerce development. It will also build on a close collaboration with selected eTrade for all partners.

In 2020, Switzerland topped UNCTAD’s Business-to-Consumer E-commerce Index, which ranks 152 countries on their readiness to engage in electronic commerce.

It scored highly across all four dimensions of the index, with 97% of the population using the internet (2019) and 98% of the population aged 15 and older having a bank account (2017).

It also ranked 7th in the world in terms of postal reliability according to the Universal Postal Union, and 5th among the countries included in the index for secure server density, a proxy for online stores.

The funds will support activities that can enable more countries to engage in and benefit from the evolving digital economy.

 

Switzerland has announced a contribution of $4.4 million (4 million Swiss francs) to UNCTAD’s <a href="https://unctad.org/topic/ecommerce-and-digital-economy" target="_blank"...

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