Figure of the week: Developing digital infrastructure in response to COVID-19 in Africa

Internet cables over surgical masks

Last month, the Brookings Africa Growth Initiative (AGI) released its annual Foresight Africa report, which explores top priorities for the region in the coming year. This year’s edition examines some of the most pertinent issues facing the continent in 2022, including its economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, public health, the empowerment of African women and girls, climate change, technological innovation, and the region’s external relations.

In the Chapter 5 essay, “Harnessing technology and innovation for a better future in Africa: Policy priorities for enabling the ‘Africa we want,’” AGI Senior Fellow Landry Signé argues that the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to the acceleration of technological innovation, adoption, policy, and regulation in Africa. However, as he notes, supportive policies aimed at promoting technological innovation alone are not sufficient for ensuring their ability to promote economic growth. Government policy, Signé urges, should also support the adoption and use of transformative digital technologies.

In fact, according to the World Bank, many governments in sub-Saharan Africa enacted digital infrastructure policy measures aimed at boosting technological adoption during the pandemic. As seen in Figure 1, these policies primarily concerned affordability, network expansion, and spectrum policy. Support for operations and tax relief measures constituted a small share of the digital infrastructure policies.

Figure 1. Sub-Saharan Africa’s policies to boost digital infrastructure in response to COVID-19

Figure 1. Sub-Saharan Africa's policies to boost digital infrastructure in response to COVID-19

Source: Landry Signé, “Harnessing technology and innovation for a better future in Africa: Policy priorities for enabling the ‘Africa we want,’” Foresight Africa 2022, The Brookings Institution, 2022.

Signé encourages African governments to continue the momentum of supportive policies enabling technological growth, innovation, and adoption across the continent. Reflecting on these policy responses to the pandemic and the ongoing challenges facing Africa’s digital infrastructure, he provides seven priorities for policymakers to further enable and harness technology to build a prosperous continent:

  1. Invest directly in information and communications technology (ICT) and infrastructure development.
  2. Modernize and expand access to education, learning, and skills.
  3. Increase the capacity of research institutions to participate in research and development activities and protect intellectual property.
  4. Steer investment toward high-productivity and labor-intensive industries.
  5. Expand and support intra-regional trade and investment, as they accelerate industrial development and create a larger market for innovations.
  6. Create institutions to manage technological disruption, encourage innovation, and ensure security.
  7. Ultimately, develop and successfully implement inclusive comprehensive national and continental strategies for harnessing technology and innovation for a better future in Africa, building on the recommendations presented above.

For Signé’s full essay and other publications on the role of technology in Africa’s development, see Chapter 5, “Technological innovations: Creating and harnessing tools for improved livelihoods,” in Foresight Africa 2022.