Why Smart Africa is smart policy

Transform Africa was once just an idea of President Paul Kagame of the Republic of Rwanda and Dr. Hamadoun Touré, then the Secretary General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). But they were intent on making it real. In October 2013, they organized a summit at the Serena Hotel in Rwanda to develop concrete steps that would move the continent as a whole into the 21st century of Information Communication Technology (ICT) development.

The summit was attended by more than 1200 delegates, including heads of states from Burkina Faso, Gabon, Kenya, Mali, Rwanda, South Sudan, and Uganda; senior representatives of more than 100 governments; top executives of major global brands such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, HP, Samsung, SAP, and Korea Telecom; policy makers; academics; and civil society representatives.

There, African leaders committed to put ICT at the center of their national socio-economic development agendas. They already knew that in recent years, Africa has witnessed unprecedented increases in mobile penetration and broadband connectivity. Now for the first time, they also articulated ICT’s transformative power to increase productivity in sectors such as education, healthcare, business and agriculture.

Perhaps the most interesting development was the attention given to the private sector. African leaders agreed to put the private sector first. They reaffirmed the unique ability of the private sector to increase investment, drive job creation, increase productivity, and foster innovation. They also resolved to sustain efforts to turn Africa from being largely a passive consumer to becoming a producer of ICTs, by increasing the number of local innovation hubs.

Beyond a set of principles embodied in a summit initiative called Connect Africa, the tangible outcome was a manifesto, “Implementation Framework: The Smart Africa Alliance,” which envisaged a partnership between each African country that was a signatory, the African Development Bank, the World Bank, the International Telecommunication Union and the private sector.

The Alliance was charged with developing continent-wide goals and best practices for the implementation of Smart Africa. Most importantly, the Smart Africa Manifesto now has been endorsed by all governments of the African Union, extending its reach beyond the seven original signatories to all 53 African countries.

The Alliance also is helping to raise funds from development partners and the private sector to implement programs in participating countries. Lastly, the Alliance has established a framework to evaluate the progress made in the implementation of the Smart Africa initiative.

Countries at the forefront of ICT leadership, including the United States, recognize the business potential of a vast area that has committed itself in unison to providing substantial marketplace opportunities. Companies that are willing to invest for the long term are doing so to produce enormous consumer welfare benefits as well as significant revenues.

In contrast, the perspective that has taken hold in some US policymaking circles has morphed recently into a “business is suspect” philosophy that supports greater regulatory intervention to minimize presumed bad behavior by the private sector.

Here, the developed world should look more closely to the developing world for models where doing well by doing good is more fully congruent by design. The Smart Africa initiative is blossoming with each passing month. Our nation would benefit greatly by studying how its large-scale private-public sector partnerships can be beneficial for all who are engaged, and for the public at large.