The year 2020 was supposed to be a milestone in EU-Africa relations but the sixth AU-EU Summit planned in October was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. At the time when the EU released its draft for a new “Strategy with Africa”, early in 2020, no one working on its preparation could prevent the Covid-19 crisis’ escalation. However, Covid-19 is acting as a catalyst for digital transformation that is one of the priorities of the strategy: its outbreak has created the political momentum and the need for the EU to scale up its digital agenda with African partners.
Africa’s demand for digital transformation
It is widely recognized that digitalization is one of the most powerful tools for implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Africa’s Agenda 2063. The African Union has put a lot of emphasis on Africa’s digital agenda and in February 2020 adopted its Digital Transformation Strategy that aims at identifying the way to respond to Africa’s demand to be digitally connected and skilled.
Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the highest Internet penetration growth, rate with an almost tenfold increase since the early 2000s compared to a threefold increase in the rest of the world. However, the path toward closing Africa’s digital divide faces many obstacles. Mobile download speeds in the region are more than three times slower than in the rest of the world and affordability remains an issue. Moreover, the data cost for and access to digital technologies are still expensive, given local incomes and the lack of infrastructures.
What role for the EU in boosting Africa’s digital transformation?
Whether digital transformation is a priority for Africa’s economic development, boosting the European approach to digital technologies and data governance is at the core of the EU’s external action. When the EU looks at its main competitors – China and the US – digital is mainly an issue of security and sovereignty. However, when it comes to Africa, the EU has the chance to perform as a so-called regulatory and trade power. This can happen thanks to the increasing penetration of digital technologies on the continent, Africa’s willingness to advance fast in digital transformation and the traditional European presence.
The EU has invested a lot in strengthening the AU’s institutional capacity. At the same time, given jeopardized economic growth, the EU is continuing to support the Regional Economic Communities that remain key drivers in sub-regional African development. The EU strongly believes that boosting the digital economy is mutually beneficial for both Africa and Europe. In this regard, the recommendations of the AU-EU Digital Economy Task Force in 2019 settled the EU priorities that have flowed into the new Strategy with Africa. The EU aims to shape governance, policy and regulation, investing in digital connectivity and infrastructure, supporting digital entrepreneurship, improving people’s digital skills and fostering the deployment of eServices (AU-EU Digital Economy Task Force, 2019). Moreover, based on the EU Digital Single Market priorities, such as removing barriers to cross-border e-commerce and access to online content while increasing consumer protection, the EU is willing to support the competition of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in compliance with its internal rules.
The launch in 2018 of the €8 million EU-funded project PRIDA (Policy and Regulation Initiative for Digital Africa) gives a better understanding of how the EU addresses some of the challenges that hamper Africa’s digital transformation at the continental level. By fostering accessible mobile broadband and enabling environments for mainstreaming information and communication technologies (ICT), following the AU Digital Transformation Strategy, the project brings together all the main stakeholders involved in ICT policies in Africa. These are indeed the African Union Commission, the African Regional Economic Communities and the national regulatory authorities and associations.
What is missing?
The rapid development of the digital sector in Africa offers a great opportunity for the EU but some unsolved issues need to be taken into account. First, the main African criticalities persist. Still, there are 580 million people in Africa with no access to electricity. Despite its efforts to address this issue, this remains a critical task for the EU. Secondly, during the Covid-19 outbreak, the European Commission launched the “Team Europe approach” to increase, coordinate and merge at the global level its efforts with member states in response to the emergency. This approach is ambitious and it is not limited just to the Covid-19 crisis. It would allow the EU to be sharper in delivering, despite the participation of member states’ lags. Finally, the EU needs to bring on board the European private sector in its engagement with Africa. In the new Multiannual Financial Framework 2021-2027, the EU has established a new instrument, the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) with a proposed budget of nearly €90 billion. As part of this, the new European Fund for Sustainable Development (EFSD +) will be the dedicated tool to leverage private investments. The EU needs to pass the message to the private sector that a new generation of instruments is designed to support investments according to the EU’s geopolitical priorities.
To sum up, digital is one of the pillars on which to rebuild a new relationship with Africa. African partners look at what the EU can bring to boost their digital transformation and European companies and member states can benefit from more opportunities. Nevertheless, to be on the level of its ambition and capabilities, the EU needs to be more attractive and to strengthen its efforts to solve Africa’s structural weaknesses.
*The views expressed are purely those of the writer and may not under any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of the European Commission