Digital Economy and Africa’s Future — Tribute to Prof. Benno Ndulu

Digital Economy Is A Paradigm Shift In Economic Transformation and Inclusion — Prof. Benno Ndulu

First, why should Africa talk about Digital Economy, there over 400 million youths in Africa, two-thirds of those are unemployed and discouraged. 18 million youths are getting into the job market every year. Time is running out for African governments to do structural reforms to accommodate this massive growing population of youths at the productive age. Digital Economy creates an untraditional and disruptive approach to address Africa’s unemployment challenges while encouraging the creation of solutions that ensures inclusion in development.

Before Mobile Money being financially included was a privilege in rural and semi-urban Africa. According to FinInclusion.Org, Today almost six in 10 adults (56%) in Tanzania are financially included, almost all through mobile money accounts (55%) and the number is going up. Bank of Tanzania (BoT) under the leadership of Prof. Ndulu played a crucial role to promote financial inclusion. Their role was of a facilitator rather than a regulator to ensure the financial technologies excel in addressing financial inclusion at the grassroots level. He was a firm believer in digital banking solutions and the potential of startups in transforming Africa’s economy. There are more than 400 fintech startups currently operating in Africa.

Prof. Ndulu Meeting With Hon. Minister Prof. Joyce Ndalichako at Sahara Sparks 2019

Africa’s $180 Billion Internet Economy

No wonder every African country is keen to establish a national-level strategy on how they can embrace the digital economy. Malawi recently launched its Digital Economy strategy and country like Kenya have already laid down their national blueprint on Digital Economy and Uganda is working on their national vision. According to IFC and Google Africa’s Internet Economy Future is estimated to worth $180B.

Google and IFC Infographic on Africa’s Internet Economy Potential

Whether you are in Nairobi, Dar, Lilongwe, Lagos, or Cairo new career titles have emerged; digital influencers, digital marketers, digital founders, podcasters, digital travelers, YouTubers, digital lifestyle experts, entertainers, giggers, drop-shippers, etc. All these are non-traditional jobs that none of us would expect to emerge from social media platforms. The platform economy is real and Africa is reaping benefits out of it. You can also question the decentness and the quality of jobs offered by platforms such as Uber and Taxify but in reality, an African average youth would rather work on a ride-sharing app than staying idle at home.

Born Before Computers

It is difficult to be a Born Before Computers (BBC) and imagine what computers can do. I know very few African leaders who fully grasp the potential of digital technologies and transformation for the social and economic prosperity of the continent. One of them was Prof. Benno Ndulu or Benno as his close colleague Amb. Ami Mpungwe used to call him. Their closeness makes sense since both are from Ifakara, Digital Enthusiasts and serial learners. I learned the concept of Singularity from Amb. Ami and Dr. Mshinda. For a fact, these three BBCs are the ambassadors of digital transformation in the country. It is so unfortunate we have lost one of them.

Many people know Prof. Ndulu from the works he was doing as an economist behind the back he was doing a lot of work to push digital transformation for Africa’s prosperity. Prof. Ndulu was working with Pathways For Prosperity Commission as Co-Academic Director along with other global reputed transformational leaders; Strive Masiyiwa, Melinda Gates, Vera Songwe, etc. The commission’s role was to champion technology and digital transformation as tools for inclusive development strategically engaging with international development partners, developing country governments, private sector leaders, emerging entrepreneurs, and civil society. The mission was to encourage new conversations and the co-designing of country-level solutions aimed at making frontier technologies work for the benefit of the hyperlocal communities. Some of the impressive works by the commission include the report Charting Pathways for Inclusive Growth, From Paralysis to Preparation and Digital Diplomacy, Technology Governance For Developing Countries.

Sahara Sparks 2019 | Africa In The 4IR

I was introduced to Prof. Ndulu by Amb. Mpungwe and Dr. Mshinda when I was looking for someone to offer a keynote on the importance of Tanzania adopting the Digital Economy and preparing for the 4IR. Out of his extremely busy schedule, he agreed to come and offer the keynote. The slides of his presentation can be accessed here. I remember what he wrote in the e-mail to my colleague Adam, “ Please find attached the PPT ton accompany my remarks. I expect to do this within the allotted timeframe. Kindly, let it not be distributed ahead of the presentation, to ensure focus on what is said. I can save time on visuals by short coverage.” He was a lecturer and liked undivided attention when he was presenting. A portion of his presentation can be accessed on YouTube. What were the punchlines;

Digital Economy is a Paradigm Shift

It is not a departmental thing. Our biggest mistake is still believing there are some sectors that will survive technology disruption. Africa policymakers should see technology as a cross-cutting issue and we should look at it in a bigger picture. In Prof’s words, “It creates opportunities from quality digital connectivity within existing sectors and activities, and allows new ways of producing and providing services to become possible”. Things like “Precision Farming” will transform the Africa agriculture sector and improve productivity tremendously. Technology will accelerate the integration of informal and formal sectors which will increase the formalization of small businesses to contribute to national economies and create new employment opportunities. The digital economy means Africa will have the ability to export services and integrating local economies efficiently.

Digital Readiness is Key For Success

Beyond sectors such as cybersecurity and software development. We need to look at Digital Economy from a more holistic view. What are the most important aspects “pillars” of the digital economy we need to focus on and what are our priorities in those areas. World Bank did a good job in doing a diagnosis of Nigeria’s Digital Economy readiness. They looked at it from the angle of an ecosystem. Zooming in things like; Digital Skills and Literacy, Digital Platforms, Digital Infrastructure, Digital Financial Services, Digital Innovation, and Usage.

World Bank’s — Key Components of The Digital Ecosystem

To fully capitalize on Digital Economy, African countries need to have clear strategies and objectives on what they need to achieve in each of the components. Overemphasizing just one or two things in the ecosystem won’t take us anywhere. Also, it is important to know these components rely on each other. Without digital skills and literacy investing in digital infrastructure and platforms might not yield the intended results. For the digital economy to work you need to build an ecosystem that supports innovation; finance, people skills, policies, etc.

Startups, Regulations, Sandboxes and the Bigger Picture

African countries need to pay the highest attention to startups — Prof. Benno Ndulu at Sahara Sparks 2019. These new forms of businesses are what will serve Africa from most of the challenges the continent is facing right now. Business models are changing and the future of work is non that African senior policymakers have experience before. A traditional HR personnel will never know how to prepare a performance appraisal for a “Social Media Engagement Personel” because the job didn’t use to exist.

Regulatory sandbox refers to live testing of new products or services in a controlled/test regulatory environment for which regulators may permit certain relaxations for the limited purpose of the testing.

A regulator who doesn’t understand how podcasting works will struggle to understand how to regulate podcaster. Policymakers need to learn and catch up very quickly. The idea is to create opportunities and not to be an obstacle. The only way we can be able to do that is through learning, unlearning, and relearning because technology is constantly evolving. We should also not be afraid to make mistakes and create rooms of learning. The bigger picture is you want a piece of pie for your youths for an economy that worth $180B. You can’t do that with crazy regulations.

People like Prof. Benno Ndulu don’t come into your life every day. It was an honor to know and work with him. May his beautiful soul Rest in Peace.

Appreciation

  • Dr. Mshinda, Amb. Mpungwe and Dr. Blandina For Arranging and Linking My Team to This Great Intellectual.
  • Thanks to my friends Balozi Arthur and Tinguely Mattli for helping us organize Africa in the 4IR leadership meeting in 2019.
  • My Team at Sahara Ventures will have a lot of stories to tell about these great people.

Entrepreneur, TZ Patriot, Loves Tech, Founder saharaventures.com, Project Management Consulting firm, Co-Founded saharasparks.com and Sahara Accelerator.

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