The Digital Moonshot: Bringing Universal Internet Access in Africa 

universal INTERNET ACCESS IN AFRICANow more than ever, the whole world relies on the internet for everything. From shopping to education, access to the internet has become a crucial aspect of modern life. While it is often taken for granted, access to the internet is not yet universal. Two decades ago, the entire continent of Africa had less internet bandwidth than Luxembourg – a nation smaller than Lake Victoria. Although progress has been made in the last 20 years, universal internet access in Africa has yet to be achieved.

In April 2019, international organizations gathered to discuss the African Union’s Digital Transformation agenda and the Digital Moonshot initiative, which aims to “digitally enable” all of Africa by the year 2030, in line with the United Nations’ target date to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Importance of the Internet

The disparity in internet access in Africa has hindered economic growth in both the private and public sectors across the continent. In emerging economies like Brazil and India, the internet has accounted for over 10% of GDP growth over the last five years. Although African countries have made considerable progress in economic development in the last few years, it continues to lag in this regard.

It is not just African businesses and governments who would benefit from greater internet connectivity but individuals, too. In a poll by the Pew Research Center, a majority of people in sub-Saharan Africa believe that increased access to the internet has had a positive influence on the economy, education and interpersonal relationships.

Internet access in Africa has certainly increased in the 21st century. Between 2014 and 2017, the percentage of people in sub-Saharan Africa who use the internet increased from 29% to 41%. However, there is still important work to be done to ensure universal internet access in Africa and importantly, stable connectivity.

The African Union’s Digital Transformation Agenda

The African Union released its Digital Transformation Agenda to digitally empower all businesses and individuals to freely access the internet by 2030. This plan will also spur intra-African trade and investment, therefore requiring a high level of cooperation between all nations in the African Union.

Currently, the African Union considers weak coordination and collaboration as a key threat to this agenda. Another central issue is a lack of cooperation between “continental institutions” in the digital sector; the African Union report states that “this deficiency must be addressed immediately otherwise the project is already destined to fail even before being implemented.”

However, the African Union also sees this plan as an opportunity for increased harmonization between regional and continental actors. It also hopes that it can improve relationships between governments within the continent. This is why collaboration with a variety of international organizations who are supporting this initiative.

The Digital Moonshot Initiative

The Digital Moonshot initiative is the World Bank’s project to support the African Union’s Digital Transformation Agenda. This initiative recognizes the need for a holistic approach that will go beyond simply increasing internet access in Africa.

World Bank Vice-President for Infrastructure Makhtar Diop stressed that the Digital Moonshot will include many fields, such as “e-government transformation, fintech, investment in human capital and digital literacy,” and support for entrepreneurship in digital advancement.

Going further, both the African Union and the World Bank emphasized the importance of inclusivity in this initiative. The African Union recognizes that the cost of internet access will inherently inhibit Africa’s poorest from being a part of the digitization initiative. Thus, the Digital Moonshot initiative will make a point to emphasize job creation and poverty reduction in the digitization process.

It also notes that a gender gap exists in access and usage of mobile phones and the internet that must be addressed as part of this plan. The World Bank’s Digital Moonshot will place a special focus on women, ensuring that the policies implemented do not exacerbate the existing gender gap in digital access.

The support of many international organizations, including the World Bank, will be crucial to the achievement of the African Union’s Digital Transformation Agenda and ultimately the pursuit of universal internet access in Africa. If these plans move forward as expected, they will have a significant impact on Africa’s economic growth and its path towards poverty reduction, in addition to connecting more African individuals and sharing their voices to the world.

– Leina Gabra
Photo: Flickr