By Victoria Wenzelmann and Ahtziri Gonzalez
Civil society organisations, companies, entrepreneurs, experts, and citizens all have a role to play in accelerating the digital transition and ensuring that it contributes to sustainable and inclusive development. In this spirit, the African Union and the European Union teamed up to co-host the first Africa-Europe D4D Hub Multi-Stakeholder Forum, which took place online on 18 March 2022.
Held under the theme “Digital transformation for sustainable development in Africa”, the purpose of the event was to give the floor to the digital communities in both continents and to listen to different perspectives on what the priorities for joint action should be.
More than 80 speakers and moderators took part in 13 sessions to discuss on a broad range of topics, including connectivity, digital entrepreneurship and innovation, and data governance. Over 1600 people from 97 countries tuned in and many of them shared their comments through the event platform, the preparatory survey, or social media. Summarising such a rich conversation is therefore an ambitious undertaking, but we identified seven takeaways that capture some of the shared views expressed by participants:
1. There is common ground for Africa and Europe to work together on digital.
While the context is very diverse in different countries in Africa and in Europe, speakers agreed on the importance of increasing cooperation between digital actors in both continents to foster mutual learning, investment, and joint frameworks. They also highlighted the importance of adopting an approach based on values, win-win collaboration, and equal opportunity.
“The proximity of the two continents calls for a strong collaboration to create a human-centred data governance model, ensuring there is open dialogue and inclusion,” said Didier Nkurikiyimfura, Head of Technology and Innovation at Smart Africa.
“In Europe and in Africa, the digital ecosystem is based on values. We want to put people at the centre of digital innovation and give it a purpose,” added Jyrki Pulkkinen, Finland’s Ambassador for Innovation.
2. Participation at all levels is needed if the digital transition is to be inclusive.
Whether they were talking about digitalisation for sustainable and resilient growth, digital ID systems, or the Global Gateway strategy, panellists and participants suggested that participatory processes, co-creative approaches, and equitable frameworks are needed if we want to build a digital future where nobody is left behind.
“Communities, especially vulnerable and disadvantaged ones, must participate in the design of digital identity systems,” said Udbhav Tiwari, Senior Public Policy Manager at Mozilla.
Regarding multi-stakeholder participation, Nanjira Sambuli, Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said: “We need to be very clear about the goals: is it just a consultation process, or do we make decisions, or are we the ones to enforce those decisions once they are made? Managing these expectations is very important to keep drawing the participation of all stakeholders, especially of smaller players who work on the ground.”
3. Digital is the cross-cutting issue of our time.
Digital is part of every sector, not just a sector of its own, echoed many panellists. Whether we discuss agriculture, health, education, public administration, financial services and trade, they all have an increasingly important digital dimension. This is why it is so relevant to put digital at the heart of sustainable development.
In this sense, Towela Nyirenda-Jere, Head of Economic Integration at AUDA-NEPAD said: “Let us steer away from calling it “digital economy” — digital is an integral part of all sectors of the economy.” This view was also shared by Kristina Mänd of the e-Governance Academy: “Digital is part of everything we do. We should not look at it separately.”
4. The digital transformation needs to be green.
For the participants of the Africa-Europe D4D Hub Multi-Stakeholder Forum, digital policies and investments should always consider their environmental impact, as well as their contribution to the fight against climate change. A green digital transition offers many opportunities for innovation to tackle pressing challenges, such as the energy infrastructure sector.
“It is important that we invest in technologies that are renewable,” said Thabo Mashegoane, Chair of the Board at Africa ICT Alliance.
Alessandro Gropelli, Deputy Director General of the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO) underlined the expected important role of “the Global Gateway when it comes to investments into the twin digital and green transition.”
5. Bridging the digital divide is not only about access to the internet, but also about safeguarding digital rights and ensuring equal share of benefits.
The importance of protecting citizens’ digital rights was a shared view in several sessions, particularly when discussing data sovereignty, governance, and regulation, as well as safeguarding an open and free internet. Policies, standards, and regulations, as well as capacities to implement them, should have human-centric principles at their core, participants said.
“We need to promote not only data literacy, but also data rights literacy,” mentioned Oyeronke Oyetunde, Head of Regulatory Affairs for the MTN Group. “People contribute to the data economy but do not benefit from it as much as they should,” added Agnieszka Skorupinska, Senior EU Affairs Advisor at Vodafone.
While personal data protection legislation has mostly focused on the potential harms of the data economy, Alison Gillwald, Executive Director of Research ICT Africa reflected on the need for economic regulations that focus on a fair distribution of its opportunities: “We need second and third generation economic and social digital rights to create a more equitable digital environment that will make better the current uneven distribution of both opportunities and harms.”
Reflecting on the inclusion of the informal sector in the African digital single market to ensure a broader distribution of benefits, Teki Akuetteh, Founder of the Africa Digital Rights’ Hub asked: “How are we involving the informal sector around the protocols that we are building, to make sure that they can participate effectively in the 3-billion-market that we are?”
6. Closing the gender digital divide is high on the agenda.
Gender equality was a cross-cutting theme across sessions and a priority expressed not only by governments and civil society, but also by investors and private sector. Regarding women’s role in digital entrepreneurship, speakers highlighted the need for financial investments, capacity development, favourable policy environments, and public support for female founders.
Calling for support for women who due to the COVID-19 pandemic have started using online marketplaces to run businesses, Ruth Negash, CEO of the COMESA Federation of Women in Business, said: “The digital transformation is not only supporting women in safety and security, but also in terms of time and convenience. They can combine household work with running a digital business and they do not want to go back.”
“People tend to not see the value of women-led businesses. Women founders in start-ups often need to find ways to sell their businesses and create more traction to be able to sell their idea,” said Hafsah Jumare, CEO of CoAmana.
“Organisations should be more inclusive and have goals to help track the progress on gender equality,” said Michelle Charles, Head of Global Diversity and Inclusion at SAP.
7. Collaboration and networking are pillars for digital start-ups to thrive.
Sharing, exchanging, and learning from each other are essential to nurture innovation and entrepreneurship, said the panellists. One of their main recommendations, therefore, was to create opportunities for networking and collaboration between digital ecosystems in both continents.
“We want to strengthen digital innovation ecosystems in African countries and to link them to those in European countries,” said Carla Montesi, Director for the Green Deal and the Digital Agenda at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for International Partnerships.
“Exchange between networks is vital for boosting the digital economy and create added value, and of course jobs,” said Robert Sanders, Team Leader for BIC Africa at the European Business and Innovation Centre Network (EBN).
The Africa-Europe D4D Hub Multi-Stakeholder Forum was the first step in what we expect will be a journey of multi-stakeholder engagement facilitated by the AU-EU D4D Hub project, including a second edition of the event to be held in 2023.