Africa eCommerce Dialogue: African Development in the 21st Century: Ensuring the evolving digital economy brings inclusive growth

Writen by
Sim Shagaya, Entrepreneur, Founder of Konga.com, Annona and Emotion (Nigeria)

It is no longer appropriate to speak about the emergence of the digital economy in the future tense or exclusive to certain regions of the world. In Africa, it is happening here and now.

The hyper connectedness brought on by the internet, ascendancy of data as a prime resource, emergence of artificial intelligence and the continued bridging of the digital and physical worlds (through robotics and gene editing) have already arrived the shores of the continent.

It is uniformly agreed that the arrival of these technologies will eliminate jobs. Every previous industrial revolution has been marked by this feature of job destruction. But these revolutions have also seen the creation of new types of jobs.

The argument that Africa will lose out in the century through massive population growth and widespread joblessness lies on the observation that human capital on the continent is of such low quality and the momentum of change already very powerful. This is true but misses a few nuances

The emerging digital economy is not a zero sum game. Each of the previous revolutions came with major increases in aggregate societal wealth. This one will be no different. I believe we see a creation of new wealth on scale and rapidity that has never been previously witnessed.

Indeed, the number and percentage of people living in extreme poverty have both steadily declined over the past two centuries. However, at the same time, we have witnessed dramatically increased inequality. This desired trend of reduced poverty should continue and even accelerate. Likewise, inequality will increase without the direct intervention of governments and multilateral actors.

The digital economy does not negate or render ineffectual the responsibility of governments. On the contrary, I believe that governments will be more potent. Investments in health, education and associated infrastructure will produce faster and most cost-effective outcomes that in previous decades. Digital technologies make it much cheaper to educate and even improve the health of large populations today than in the previous century.

Effective non-corrupt African governments with vision will be able to reach even the furthest rural areas to improve human capital. These same digital technologies will allow for near instantaneous social feedback and thereby unprecedented optimisation of human welfare.

African development, the decline in poverty and the minimisation of inequality will not happen uniformly across countries. Vision, government action, regulation and oversight will still need to be present and robust. The countries that demonstrate these traits, particularly as manifest in aggressive investment in human capital, will reap outsized and accelerated positive outcomes in the way of reduced poverty and relatively lower inequality.

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