Transform Africa Summit: Building the digital Africa we need

By Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Secretary-General, ITU

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and Africa have a special bond.
I was a fresh young Policy Analyst working in the new Development Sector of ITU in 1995 when Nelson Mandela came to Geneva and talked about ITU’s crucial importance for Africa  – and about the role of digital in eliminating inequalities between the North and the Global South.

That was almost three decades ago, and since then, digital has risen to the very top of the global agenda, proving that Mandela’s message remains as true as ever.

We’ve seen it last month at the Fifth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries (LDC5) and the Commission on the Status of Women, and again at the Spring Meetings of the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund just days ago.

So, what does that mean for Africa?  And how can ITU help?

It means that the steps taken in this decade to build an inclusive and sustainable digital future will define the rest of the century – what could be the African century.

A moment of opportunity

All the signs are right in front of us.  Demand for connectivity on the continent has never been greater. Internet use in Africa jumped by a remarkable 23 per cent between 2019 and 2021.

Mobile money services are also growing faster and reaching more people on the continent than ever before. Sub-Saharan Africa is now home to more than 760 million registered accounts – almost half the mobile money users in the global total.

The time has come to use this momentum to invest in Africa – in its youth; in its entrepreneurs; in its infrastructure.

Yes, there’s a funding crisis right now. Access to cheaper financing is restricted, and borrowing and living costs are increasing – and this makes things more complicated for many African countries when it comes to investing in crucial areas like digital infrastructure.

And yes, it’s not just infrastructure. We need to make sure that people on the continent use the technology, that it works for them, and that they can afford it.

We can’t forget that what Africans pay for mobile Internet and fixed broadband, as a share of their income, is disproportionate compared with the rest of the world. That’s also why only 40 per cent of individuals in Africa are online, and that the average for Internet use in the 33 LDCs in Africa is just 28 per cent.

Bold, innovative solutions

Here are two examples of how to address such challenges through big, bold, out-of-the-box projects.

The first is about school connectivity. Africa has been the biggest supporter of Giga, the ITU-UNICEF initiative to connect every school to the Internet. We have already connected more than 2,300 schools and over 1 million children on the continent, and work is ongoing in many African countries.

The second example is the Partner2Connect Digital Coalition led by ITU, the first-ever global pledging platform to foster meaningful connectivity and digital transformation globally.

We received our first pledges last June at our World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC) in Kigali. To date, the continent has received the highest number of pledges – worth over USD 10 billion, representing one third of the total – in areas ranging from digital inclusion to infrastructure to digital skills.

Connect, innovate, transform

I believe that this is Africa’s moment.

African leaders made it clear in the Niamey Declaration adopted last month, by harnessing digital technology – and young people’s potential – to combat climate change and achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

I look forward to working with all of them and others in the critical weeks and months to come to build a strong digital Africa – the Africa we all want and the Africa the world needs.

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