The promises and perils of Africa’s digital revolution
The relentless spread of digital technology is helping Africa catch up with the rest of the planet rapidly and is beginning to make a real difference to people’s lives, boosting employment opportunities, providing improved health care, and contributing to the fight against corruption.
But it is a double-edged sword because, in the wrong hands, or employed for reasons that are not purely altruistic, then it can also undermine civil liberties, enable new and more sophisticated forms of criminality, and even create the potential for a new arms race.
Concentrating on one aspect of this digital revolution, the way that internet penetration has increased across the continent is really becoming a game changer for many Africans.
Now at least 25% of the African population has internet access, which is a fifty-fold increase since the start of the 21st century. And some experts predict that this figure could rise to three-quarters of the population by 2030, which would bring Africa into line with the rest of the world.
The economic benefits are almost limitless. Already it is estimated that mobile technologies have added US $144 billion or 8.5% to the GDP of the African economy and generated 17 million jobs.
It has also helped certain sectors to flourish. One example is the many south african casinos, which are listed here, which were able to respond to the challenge posed by the global pandemic and national lockdowns by going online and expending their product and serve offerings. Their reward? A surge in customer numbers and record revenues and profits.
On the plus side of this internet revolution is the way that some countries have embraced the possibilities that it offers to create mobile, peer-to-peer centres of finance in a continent where a large percentage of the population remain unbanked. Kenya and Sierra Leone are two countries that have established such networks.
In addition, tax collection systems have been brought online in countries like Nigeria, helping to improve notoriously poor collection rates, enhancing the security of the process, and removing the incidence of fraud.
The rise of the internet though comes with downsides as well, though, particularly as it accentuates the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots”. Without affordable internet, low-income Africans living in non-urban areas will see their living standards fall further behind the rest of the population.
A recent Senegalese study found there was a direct correlation between 3G internet access and economic benefits to people – consumption increased by 14% and poverty declined by 10%.
And whilst the internet has created many jobs, it has also eliminated a fair few as well, particularly where old largely manual systems were in place.
One peril that that digitilisation brings in its wake is the increased vulnerability of countries to cyber-attacks on individuals, businesses, and even sovereign countries through their infrastructure.
Previously cyber criminals did not bother with Africa as it made up such a small proportion of global internet traffic. That might change in future, as they realise there might be potentially rich pickings to be had by targeted cyber incursions.
And, like all internet users the world over, Africans will need to be wary of the increased online surveillance they are opening themselves up to every time they log-in to their PC or mobile device.
Big Brother is watching you, and he does not always have your best interest at heart!